Skip to main content

Animal Intelligence, the Amazing Truth

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

I write about things I find interesting, and although I am not an expert, I have fun learning as I research. I hope you like the results!

Are Animals Really Dumb?

When it comes to animal intelligence, is it us or they that bury our head in the sand ?

When it comes to animal intelligence, is it us or they that bury our head in the sand ?

No, Animals Aren't Dumb

I hope to convince you, via a series of short videos, links, and explanations that animals in general, and birds, in particular, get a rough deal when it comes to gaining credit for their intelligence.

An animal’s cognitive intelligence is often judged in the same context that we judge ourselves. Clearly, this is not a fair comparison, as we have evolved in different ways to suit our own environments. Take birds, for example. We use the derogatory phrase "bird brain" as an insult to someone who we consider to have been stupid, yet does the avian family really deserve to be thought of in this way?

The Wise Owl?

The owl has a reputation for being wise, but in reality, it is nowhere near as intelligent as some other birds like the crow or parrot

The owl has a reputation for being wise, but in reality, it is nowhere near as intelligent as some other birds like the crow or parrot

Migration Skills

Migratory birds are capable of navigating complex flight paths over thousands of miles without getting lost. Take as an example the Arctic Tern, which enjoys the daylight so much that it flies from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere and back again every year, in search of the maximum possible hours of sunlight. This equates to a distance of about 24,000 miles per year, the approximate equivalent distance of flying around the Earth 15 times.

In extreme cases, this distance can be even longer. Check out the link below about an individual Arctic Tern that clocked up the longest ever known migration on record.

Do you think you could manage that without your handy sat-nav system?

Longest Migration Ever Recorded of an Individual Bird

The Arctic Tern

The Arctic Tern can travel incredible distances and find its way home again

The Arctic Tern can travel incredible distances and find its way home again

Adapting to an Environment

We all know how stressful moving home can be, yet migratory birds do it every year— twice! They can also adapt to changes in their environment caused by man's interference and to the destruction of habitats.

Let's look at the common pigeon or rock dove for instance. This bird’s natural habitat is on sea-cliffs or mountains, yet we know from visiting cities all over the world that this bird has become quite a prolific member of urban life. How? Well, it finds buildings that are very similar to natural ledges on a rock face, using the eaves of a building’s roof, or window ledges, to roost.

You may also have noticed that the urban pigeon is not a fussy eater. Despite having a natural diet based on seeds, fruit, and grain, if someone chances to drop a french fry or a tasty bit of fast food, pigeons will congregate around until it's all gone.

Fussy eaters? Not at all...

The pigeon will eat almost any left overs that we leave behind

The pigeon will eat almost any left overs that we leave behind

Adapting to City Life

Nest Building

Nest building is another fascinating example of bird intelligence. They are basically building homes from scratch, using nothing but natural materials and their own acquired skills. We may think of all nests as being woven from grass, hay, twigs, etc. and yet birds have yet again shown their ability to adapt by making use of man-made materials too. In Tokyo, the Asian Crow, for example, has adapted to the lack of natural building materials for nesting, in the built-up city in which it dwells, by incorporating coat hangers into its arsenal, stealing them from unsuspecting city dwellers.

Asian Crows Use Coat-Hangers Stolen From City Dwellers

The Weaver Bird

The male Weaver Bird can build incredibly intricate nests from scratch, using long stalks of grass, considerable adeptness, and a lot of patience. I say patience because if he doesn't find a mate before the nest goes brown, then he has to tear it down and start all over again, as the female won't choose a partner whose nest has gotten old enough to dry out (You see we aren't that far removed from animals as you thought!)

Weaver Birds Building Their Nests

The Ovenbird

The Ovenbird of South America uses mud to build its nest. They work grass and mud together to make a crude form of Adobe, in much the same way that humans have for thousands of years in Africa and other parts of the world. They fashion an intricate, double-chambered dome that has a foyer and an inner chamber, making it easier to defend against a potential predator.

Scroll to Continue

Ovenbird's Mud Nest


Aesop’s famous fable about the crow and the pitcher highlights how even the ancient Greeks observed the problem-solving prowess of the common crow. In the story, a crow uses pebbles to raise the surface level of the water in a pitcher in order to access the food that had lain previously out of reach. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to avian problem-solving.

Aesop's Fable - The Crow and the Pitcher

Solving the Water Pitcher Problem, Corvid Style

Birds Have Intelligence... Cracked

Along with the ancient tales, we have the Central America-based Grackle, another bird to solve the pitcher problem. Another way that birds solve problems include using long twigs to poke larvae or grubs out of trees, but just as impressively, we must look at birds that have worked out how to use cars to crack nuts that are otherwise too tough for them to break. Amazingly, they have even learned to use traffic lights to get the best possible retrieval time for their snacks. (See video below.)

It should be noted that crows are not the only birds to have discovered the car as a tool. Seagulls also use cars to crack open tough seashells.

Not Such a Tough Nut to Crack


Of course, one of the most famous things that humans use as a test of intelligence to distinguish us from animals is the use of tools. Whilst the subject is raised, I ask you the reader this, why the seeming need amongst scientists to show that we are so much more superior to animals? Could it be the same reason that some men need a fast car when they approach their midlife crisis? See this quote from the Live Science website for instance. (By the way, I recommend this excellent website to anyone with a passing interest in science. Check them out!).

"The way humans make and use tools is perhaps what sets our species apart more than anything else."

Let's look at this in reverse and see if it is reasonable. Would it, for instance, be fair to look at us in a swimming test against a dolphin in water, and say that because the dolphin swims so much faster, that it is superior to humans? Of course not, it's just far more suited to its environment than we are. This also applies in reverse. Think of animals as no better or worse than us, just differently adapted to their own, unique, environment.

We know now that some animals use tools. Primates are an obvious choice, but there are others, including the bottlenose dolphin that holds a marine sponge next to its nose in order to stir up the ocean bottom to uncover its prey food. Elephants have been known to drop objects onto electric fences to short-circuit them in order to safely get past. They have also dropped chewed-up tree bark into water-holes to prevent other animals from using it all up before they need it again. This shouldn't be too surprising, really, seeing as elephants have the largest brain of any land animal including us. Sea otters use stones to hammer shells from rocks and also to break open the shells once they have obtained them. Octopi use coconut shells as armour to protect them in the face of a dangerous predator. Not only that, they also collect them, making them the only known animals, apart from humans, to store tools for possible later use.

In the video below, you can see how a crow uses problem solving and tools to gain a tasty morsel of food.

Crow Uses Tools and Problem-Solving Skills to Defeat 8 Stage Food Puzzle

Language Skills in Animals

Birds can also use language skills to communicate with each other. Whilst it has long been taken for granted that birds use their tweets, songs, and calls to warn each other of danger and to find a mate, it has recently been discovered that they can also form relatively complex language-like skills by putting their chirps and tweets together in specific patterns.

The Japanese Great Tit is one such bird. Already renowned for its vocal abilities, it was discovered in a recent study that whilst they had the normal call for a danger alert to each other, and another for the discovery of food, they were also observed combining the two phrases to tell other members of the flock, "Come over here for this food but look out for danger".

Dr Michael Griesser, from the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Zurich, remarked of this study that, “The results lead to a better understanding of the underlying factors in the evolution of syntax. Because the Tits combine different calls, they are able to create new meaning with their limited vocabulary. That allows them to trigger different behavioural reactions and coordinate complex social interactions.”

A language was long considered to be something unique to humans, but this myth has been categorically dispelled in more recent years. Whilst no one is claiming that animal communications are as complex as the human language, there have been a few remarkable instances of communication in the animal world.

Kanzi the Bonobo

Kanzi is a bonobo, which, along with chimpanzees, are the closest relations to humans. He is reputed to be able to understand up to 3,000 English words and has his own symbol sheet containing 348 items, which he points to in order to be understood. Here is an example of his amazing abilities: On one occasion whilst in a forest by the Georgia State University, Kanzi used his symbol sheet to point out a marshmallow and a fire. His keepers gave him marshmallows and some matches, and then he proceeded to snap twigs, light the matches to ignite the sticks, and toast the marshmallows over the fire. Pretty incredible stuff.

Kanzi Toasts Marshmallows Over a Fire He Made


More About Kanzi

Rico, the Border Collie

Whilst people are not too surprised about the intelligence of our close cousins, the primates, they may be more shocked to discover that it doesn't end there. Next, we can look at Rico, the Border Collie, who is able to understand and react to human language in a way that exceeds most people’s beliefs of a dog. He can recognise the names of 200 different toys and retrieve them by name. He can also learn new ones, after hearing the name of it just once. Obviously, Rico cannot communicate with us in a reciprocal way, but this does show his ability to understand words and meanings, which most of us will have seen on a more limited basis with our own pet dogs.


Rico with one of his 200 memorised toys

Rico with one of his 200 memorised toys

Watch as These Macaque's Barter With People For Food

Ayumu the Chimpanzee

Ayumu the chimpanzee can complete a feat of memory that would put human's best memory champions to shame, and indeed has, when she comfortably defeated British world memory champion, Ben Pridmore. To give you some idea of Ben's ability, he can memorise a shuffled deck of cards in under thirty seconds.

A series of five numbers were shown on a computer screen, before being replaced by white squares. The task then was to touch the squares in the same order that the numbers numerically appeared, from one to five. Doesn't sound too hard, right? Except that the span of time in which these numbers had to be remembered was a fraction of a second.

In a similar test, a group of chimps competed against a group of university students, with the chimps being the clear winners. Kyoto University researcher, Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa, is quoted as saying, "People still believe that humans are superior to chimpanzees in any domain of intelligence. That is the prejudice of the people." Whilst I agree with him, I would add that the bias extends to all animals, not just chimps. We really do think we are special, despite all the evidence that we have our specialities and flaws, just like any other evolved creature. It just so happens that we have developed abilities that allow us to dominate and therefore feel superior, in my opinion.

Ayumu, the Memory Champion

Alex, the African Grey Parrot

However, let us return to the main subject of this article, birds.

One of the most famous animal communicators was with Alex, the African Grey parrot, who sadly passed away in 2007 at the tender age (for a species that can outlive humans) of 31. Alex (which was a clever acronym for Avian Language EXperiment) was a fascinating bird who could not only understand humans but could also answer questions, work out counting sums, and provide the correct answer. He had a vocabulary of over 150 words, could count up to six, recognise five different shapes and seven different colours, distinguish up to 50 different objects, and tell the difference between "bigger and smaller" and "same and different."

Who's a clever boy then?

Alex understood words to such a level that if he asked for a banana, and was instead offered a grape, he would show annoyance and toss it away. What really set Alex apart from any other communicator in experimental history, however, was that he is the only recorded case of an animal asking a question. When presented with a key that was of an unfamiliar colour to him, he asked "What colour?" Whilst apes are recognised as the smartest animal out there and have been taught sign language, no other animal before or since Alex has ever been recorded as having asked a direct, inquisitive question

Alex's intelligence was judged to be on a similar level to that of a 5-year-old human child, and he hadn't even peaked at the time of his death. Just before his death, Alex was learning the concepts of "over" and "under." Who knows how much further he could have gone had he lived longer. It's well worth taking a little time out of your schedule to watch him in action in the video posted below. Particularly poignant to the lady who raised him for 30 years of his life, Irene Pepperburg an animal psychologist, was the fact that the last time she saw him alive his final words to her were, "You be good, see you around. I love you". Now whilst this was probably just a trained routine for every time she left him, what a fitting choice of phrase given the tragic circumstances.

Alex, the African Grey Parrot in Action

Social Hierarchy and Face Recognition

We have all heard of the term "pecking order," but for birds, it's not just a phrase, it's a working reality. In order to maintain social order, there is quite literally a pecking order to keep things running smoothly. Let’s take a look at the monk parakeet as an example because it was recently used in a case study.

Native birds of Argentina and captive birds in Florida were used for the study. It revealed that the birds generally tend to find a partner and stick very closely to them. Within the group, it was noticed that the original pair of mates had strong associations with a few fellow pairings, a good relationship with most of the other birds, and very few with which there was a weak association within the flock.

Now, in conjunction with these positive findings, there was also a stage of aggression, where the birds literally test each other’s ability for dominance. The remarkable thing about this, if you think about it, is that every bird in that social group has to remember every confrontation it has had with another bird and act accordingly. This shows a high level of cognitive recognition of other members of the flock. This is another sign of high intelligence akin to facial recognition in humans.

This brings me to another story about crows (they really are the star of this article). In Seattle, researchers had caught many crows over a five-year period and were amazed to discover that crows remembered them. Even a year after seeing them, the crows would shout, scold, and dive-bomb the researchers who had caught them. Amazingly, it wasn’t just the birds that had been caught that carried out this practice, but flock mates and offspring also. This indicates a culture of spreading the news about a dangerous threat, right down to the detail of the face.

Indeed, while I was writing this article, I was watching a family of sparrows on my front lawn area The youngsters were learning to fly, not always with great success I have to say. What really caught my eye though, was the behaviour of the adults. They were not content to just leave these fledgelings to it, but rather helped them and oversaw their actions, trying to help them in the right direction when things got tough. Like the day when I first noticed the young sparrows learning to fly and they couldn't gain enough height to get over my garden fence in either direction. The parents and other adult birds kept flying down to them. It was almost like they were giving advice on how to overcome it, leading them to the end of the garden where they could get a better head start by going through the gate.

The video below includes footage of crow intelligence in a human environment. The Seattle crows showing recognition of particular humans, the Tokyo crows taking coat hangers for nests and more. When you put all these things together, one has to wonder why people still don't give them the credit they deserve.

Crow's Intelligent Behaviour

Unfair Comparisons

In conclusion, I have to return back to what I initially said about the unfair comparisons between animals and humans in research studies.

We have seen how birds can travel extreme distances and find their way back to the place they started.

Birds adapted to changes in their environment and became city dwellers alongside us and changed their diets, nesting materials, and birdsong accordingly.

The remarkable home building skills they employ from many different materials and in many different designs, all with acquired knowledge.

Problem-solving skills that prove without a doubt that birds have the ability to think. They know that a stone will raise the surface of the water, that a car will break the extra tough nut for them, and traffic lights give them the time they need to retrieve it.

They have incorporated tools into their daily lives using twigs like a fork to remove tasty treats from otherwise inaccessible places.

Look at how our voice-boxes have evolved over the millennia. Originally we would have used our voices to communicate in much the same way that other animals do. For some reason our particular species took this and ran with it, giving us the ability to expound our feelings and our needs to each other. We then took it further as part of our own unique evolution and made it an integral part of our progression.

Compare this to animals who have evolved on a different path and do not need the highly complex language structure that we employ. Therefore it is simply unfair to judge animal intelligence on the basis of language. Even so, we have seen here that animals can still be pretty amazing with their communication skills.

We have seen amazing memory skills from dogs, parrots, and chimpanzees and in some cases even outmanoeuvring the best that humankind can offer in that field.

A bird asking an intelligent question when presented with a colour it hadn’t seen before, which shows curiosity and the intention to learn something new.

The ability to recognise and remember their relationship with each other. Facial recognition of humans perceived as a danger.

Guidance for the young as they learn the path to being a parent themselves.

Navigation, adaptation, home building, problem-solving, tool use, language skills, social skills, facial recognition and memory skills.

These are just a few examples of the often derided and misunderstood world of birds and other animals. Where intelligence is of a far higher level than most give them credit for, and all of this with a brain a fraction the size of our own.

So maybe next time you get called “bird-brain” by someone who hasn’t understood just how intelligent they are, you can just smile and say thank you.

© 2018 Ian


JourneyHolm on October 11, 2018:

Great information! Well written and very interesting. Good job!

Ian (author) from Durham on October 01, 2018:

Hi Ellison! Thank you for the feedback, it's much appreciated as I am a newbie here.

My wife just happens to be from MD too, Kent Island to be precise :)

Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on October 01, 2018:

This article is great! Love all the examples that you use, and your photos are great. I agree with you animals are definitely smart. I live on a farm, so besides dogs and cats I have horses, goats, chickens, turkeys, peacocks, emus, donkeys, and rabbits..they are all smart in their own way!

Related Articles