Birds Are Intelligent and Perhaps Even Self-Aware, Their Brains Reveal

Your pet parrot may really be trying to communicate with you.
Loukia Papadopoulos

It's been a good week for birds! Just a few days ago we reported how crows along with other corvids (ravens, rooks, and jackdaws) can think similarly to humans and some primates. Now, another new brain study has come alone to reveal that birds' brains have a mammalian neocortex that is linked to conscious thought.


“It’s often assumed that birds’ alien brain architecture limits thought, consciousness, and most advanced cognition,” John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist and specialist on crows at the University of Washington, Seattle — who was not involved with either study — told Science magazine. Researchers who have “demonstrated the cognitive abilities of birds won’t be surprised by these results,” he adds, “but they will be relieved.”

To be clear, the revelation that birds are intelligent and even perhaps self-aware was made in two steps. First, a study discovered an arrangement of microcircuits in the avian brain that may be analogous to the mammalian neocortex. 

“This research confirms the old adage that looks can be deceiving,” Marzluff explained to Science magazine. Although bird and mammalian brains “look very different, this study shows us they are actually wired in very complementary ways.”

Then, another study discovered that that neocortex is responsible for conscious thought. The two works combined together led scientists to believe birds may have incredible thinking capabilities.

This work is definitely bound to raise some eyebrows, explained to Science magazine Irene Pepperberg, as “some researchers argue that consciousness is uniquely human." Pepperberg is a comparative psychologist at Harvard University who has worked with an African gray parrot who can communicate in English about abstract concepts — she also was not affiliated with the two new studies. 

In the meantime, the researchers actually involved in the two studies; Martin Stacho, a neuroanatomist at Ruhr-University Bochum, and Andreas Nieder, a neurophysiologist at the University of Tübingen, argue that while mammal and bird brains evolved differently they are still very similar in their "perceptual and cognitive abilities.”

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