Birds have been consistently underestimated. Avian intelligence is only recently getting extensive research attention.[1] The term “bird brain” is still often used as a derogatory term, but it turns out that a number of avian species are very intelligent. Magpies, for example, are not only smart but exhibit self-awareness as well.[2]

Crows are among the most intelligent birds in the world,[3] and have the problem-solving abilities of a seven-year-old human.[4] They have been shown to reason analytically, to fashion tools to gather otherwise inaccessible food,[5] and to adapt to difficult situations.[6] Ravens in particular have been shown to test out consequences mentally before acting and to enlist other animals to help them.[7] In the U.S., crows are protected as migratory birds and several species have been listed as endangered. But this has not prevented individuals and communities from launching campaigns to confine, kill, poison, immobilize, or harass crows.[8]

Parrots, particularly the African grey parrot and the Goffin’s cockatoo, show the long-term decision-making skills of a human four-year-old.[9] Parrots have excellent memories, can count up to six,[10] categorize objects, and are capable of solving relatively complex problems.

Research has shown that pigeons have the intelligence of a human three-year-old and can differentiate a present self-image from one previously recorded.[11] They can name and categorize objects into multiple categories.[12] Pigeons are extremely good at geolocation and have been used as messengers repeatedly throughout history. In addition, they have excellent memories for both people and places. Their eyesight is better than that of humans, and the U.S. Coast Guard has trained pigeons to spot the orange life jackets of people lost at sea. In addition, they have excellent memories for both people and places.

While we treat chickens primarily as a food source, recent research shows that they are self-aware and more intelligent than human toddlers.[13] Chickens have demonstrated skills in numeracy, as well as the ability to plan ahead and exercise self-control. They engage in complex communication patterns, learn from others in their group, coordinate group activities, solve problems, and build long-term relationships.[14] Despite their intelligence and self-awareness, 95 percent of chickens in the U.S. in 2013 were still confined in “battery cages” (which have been outlawed in the European Union), valued only for the eggs that are laid, with no room to move and no mental stimulation.

[1] See the summary of research in A. Lamey, “Primitive Self-Conscious-ness and Avian Cognition,” The Monist 95, no. 3 (2012): 486-510.

[2] A. Motluk, “Mirror Test Shows Magpies Aren’t So Bird-Brained,” New Scientist (19 Aug 2008).

[3] P. Rincon, “Crows and Jays Top Bird IQ Scale,” BBC News (22 February 2005).

[4]Crows Are as Intelligent as CHILDREN: Study Reveals Birds Are as Clever as a Seven-Year-Old Human,” Daily Mail (26 March 2014).

[5] L. Greenemeier, “The Secret Lives of Tool-Wielding Crows,” Scientific American (4 October 2007).

[6] L. Castro & E. Wasserman, “Crows Understand Analogies,” Scientific American (10 February 2015).

[7] R. McKie, “Clever Raven Proves That It’s Not Birdbrain,” The Guardian (29 April 2007). .

[8] A.A. Smirnova, O.F. Lazareva, & Z.A. Zorina, “Use of Numbers by Crows: Investigation by Matching and Oddity Learning,” Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behaviour 73 (2000): 163–176.

[9] L. Watson, “Who’s a Clever Boy Then! Parrot Shown to Have Same Intelligence Level as Four-Year-Old Child,” Daily Mail (13 March 2013); I.M. Pepperberg, “Grey Parrot Numerical Competence: A Review,” Animal Cognition 9, no. 4 (2006): 377–391.

[10] Pepperberg, 2006, Ibid.

[11] U. Khan, “Pigeons ‘Intelligence’ Compared to a Three-Year-Old Child,” The Telegraph (13 June 2008).

[12] S. Agnew, “Pigeons Are Smarter Than You’d Think,” Futurity (16 February 2015).

[13] F. MacRae, “Can Chickens REALLY Be Cleverer Than a Toddler? Students Suggest Animals Can Master Numeracy and Basic Engineering,” Daily Mail (18 June 2013).

[14] R. Grillo, “Chicken Behavior: An Overview of Recent Science,” (7 February 2014).