The Most Intelligent Birds in the Skies

It is estimated that 10,000 species of birds roam our planet, many of whom are known for their intelligence. Which are the most intelligent birds, and how do they demonstrate their intelligence?

The Most Intelligent Birds in the Skies

10- Falcons

Falcons
Falcons. Credits: Wikimedia/Rodrigo de Almeida

Where they live: Falcons are widespread and found across the globe except in extreme polar regions and some high mountains.

Intelligence Attributes: Falcons are considered one of the most intelligent birds because of their remarkable hunting skills, using incredible speeds (up to 350 km/h) and precise aerial maneuvers. Falcons’ intelligence can be seen in their hunting strategies, since they calculate trajectory and timing to catch moving prey. Falcons also exhibit adaptability in different environments, adjusting their techniques based on the prey and conditions.

Scientific Facts: Research has demonstrated that falcons have some of the most acute vision in the animal world, allowing them to spot small prey several kilometers away. This keen eyesight is critical for their hunting strategy, which involves diving at high speeds to catch their prey by surprise. These birds possess a high foveal photoreceptor concentration, providing sharp central vision essential for tracking fast-moving prey. Furthermore, these intelligent birds have a nictitating membrane that cleans and protects the eye at high speeds and acts as a filter to reduce glare from sunlight, enabling them to maintain visual clarity while diving at their prey.

9- Owls

Owls
Owls. Credits: Wikimedia/Charles J. Sharp

Where they live: Owls are found globally, except in Antarctica. They are versatile and can adapt to various habitats, including populated urban areas, dense forests, and open prairies.

Intelligence Attributes: Owls are intelligent birds possessing exceptional hunting skills, using their keen senses of hearing and sight to track prey in the dark. Their large eyes are highly adapted to low light conditions, enabling them to spot prey during nocturnal hunting. Owls have demonstrated problem-solving abilities, indicating a high level of cognitive function.

Scientific Facts: Studies on owls have focused on their sensory capabilities, particularly their auditory and visual systems. Scientific research has revealed how these birds can rotate their heads up to 270 degrees without damaging blood vessels or disrupting blood flow, demonstrating an evolutionary adaptation to their hunting style. Owl hearing is undoubtedly more sensitive than other birds, particularly at frequencies of 5 kHz and above. Their asymmetrically placed ears allow for precise sound localization, enabling them to pinpoint the exact location of their prey without visual cues.

8- Jays

Jays
Jays. Credits: Wikimedia/David Menke

Where they live: Due to their intelligence, jays can be found in forests, woodland habitats, parks, and many urban areas across the Northern Hemisphere, including North America, Europe, and Asia.

Intelligence Attributes: Jays are known for their complex social behavior and remarkable memory, especially when storing food for future use. The blue jay can mimic the calls of some hawk species. These calls may inform other jays that a hawk is around, or may be used to deceive other species into believing a hawk is present, demonstrating their advanced cognitive abilities.

Scientific Facts: Research into jays has provided insights into their episodic memory and future planning capabilities. For example, experiments demonstrate that jays rely on episodic-like memories of what they cached where and when, and adapt their caching strategy to anticipated future needs.

7- Cockatoos

Cockatoos
Cockatoos. Credits: Wikimedia/JJ Harrison

Where they live: Cockatoos are native to Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Solomon Islands.

Intelligence Attributes: Cockatoos are intelligent birds known for their problem-solving skills and ability to manipulate tools. For example, researchers showed that cockatoos could modify the size of cardboard strip tools, creating shorter instruments for closer food rewards and longer ones when the food was placed further away. They can learn complex sequences of actions to solve puzzles or access food, demonstrating a level of intelligence comparable to that of great apes.

Scientific Facts: Studies on cockatoos have highlighted their exceptional learning ability and social intelligence. For example, scientists have proven that cockatoos learn the unique skill of how to lift garbage bin lids to gather food from each other, confirming that these birds spread this novel behavior through social learning.

6- Pigeons

Pigeons
Pigeons. Credits: Wikimeida/Muhammad Mahdi Karim

Where they live: Thanks to their intelligence, pigeons are found worldwide, thriving in both rural and urban settings. They are more common in cities where they can find food, water, and shelter.

Intelligence Attributes: Pigeons are considered intelligent because of their remarkable navigational abilities, capable of returning to their nests over long distances. Studies have shown that pigeons use a combination of the Earth’s magnetic field, sun positioning, and visual landmarks to navigate.

Scientific Facts: Research into pigeon intelligence has provided insights into animal cognition, including spatial memory and learning. Scientists have found that pigeons have good long-term memory, since a single bird could memorize 1200 pictures.

5- Magpies

Magpies. Credits: Wikimedia/ Charles J. Sharp

Where they live: Magpies are found in various habitats across Australia. They adapt well to diverse environments, including urban areas.

Intelligence Attributes: Magpies are recognized for their intelligence because they are among the few non-mammalian species to have passed the mirror test, demonstrating good cognitive skills. They exhibit problem-solving abilities and the capacity to mimic human speech, including words and phrases. Some preliminary studies have shown that these birds can use tools and manipulate their environment to access food.

Scientific Facts: The intelligence of magpies suggests a high level of brain development, challenging the notion that complex cognitive abilities are exclusive to mammals. For example, if a magpie dies, other magpies will group around the body and grieve the loss of this individual.

4- Keas

Keas
Keas. Credits: Wikimedia/Mrspidernz

Where they live: Keas are natives of New Zealand, where they can inhabit alpine and forested environments.

Intelligence Attributes: Keas are known for their intelligence, curiosity, and playfulness, often engaging with human-made objects and solving complex puzzles. Their social interactions and ability to use tools reflect a sophisticated level of cognitive processing. Keas have been observed working together to achieve goals, indicating a form of collaborative intelligence.

Scientific Facts: Keas are known to scavenge, frequently pecking at dead animals, and they also target living sheep. Due to such behaviors, early European settlers labeled them as nuisances. Consequently, for several years, the hunting of kea was permissible, resulting in the death of at least 150,000 of these birds. They are considered an endangered species because these birds still face many threats nowadays. Predators like possums, cats, rats, and stoats can attack them or their eggs and steal their food supply.

3- Parrots (including the African Grey Parrot)

Parots
Parots. Credits: Wikimedia/Vyacheslav Argenberg

Where they live: Parrots are found in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide, including South America, Australia, and Africa. The African Grey Parrot is native to the rainforests of West and Central Africa.

Intelligence Attributes: Parrots are known for their intelligence, vocal abilities, and capacity to mimic human speech. Beyond mimicry, these birds understand language and concepts such as color, shape, and number. They exhibit emotional intelligence, forming deep bonds with their human caretakers and showing empathy towards other birds.

Scientific Facts: Research on African Grey Parrots has shed light on avian intelligence, particularly in communication and cognitive abilities. Studies indicate they understand concepts like same vs. different, categorize objects like humans, and solve complex problems. Their social nature and ability to communicate complex ideas to one another are hallmarks of their intelligence.

2- Ravens

Ravens
Ravens. Credits: Wikimedia/*~Dawn~*

Where they live: Ravens are found across the Northern Hemisphere, thriving in various environments, including forests, mountains, and deserts.

Intelligence Attributes: Because of their problem-solving skills and the use of tools, ravens are among the most intelligent birds. One study demonstrated that ravens even pre-plan tasks, a behavior long believed to be unique to humans and their relatives. For example, researchers instructed the birds on how to use a certain tool to obtain food. Nearly 24 hours afterward, when presented with various items, the ravens chose the exact tool again and successfully executed the task to retrieve their reward.

Scientific Facts: Their intelligence is also attributed to their complex social skills. Ravens live in complex social groups, and they can gain power by building social bonds that function as alliances. Ravens regularly intervene in affiliative interactions with others even though such interventions are potentially risky and without immediate benefits. Therefore, they may prevent others from forming alliances and becoming future competitors.

1- Crows

Crows
Crows. Credits: Wikimedia/Loz (L. B. Tettenborn)

Where they live: Crows are found worldwide in various habitats, from remote forests to dense urban areas. They are among the most adaptable of birds, thriving in almost any environment.

Intelligence Attributes: Crows can use tools, recognize human faces, and understand the concept of zero. Crows engage in sophisticated social behaviors, including mourning their dead and warning each other of dangers. They are known for their problem-solving skills and ability to solve complex puzzles for food.

Scientific Facts: Crows are known to hold “funerals” and “wakes.” When crows find another crow’s dead body, they alert others in the area, who will gather and begin to make a ruckus. Researchers believe this behavior helps crows learn about potential threats and which locations and predators to avoid. This level of cognitive flexibility and creativity in problem-solving showcases the remarkable intelligence of crows, placing them at the top of the list of the most intelligent birds.

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