Parrots Are Smart, and Most Outlive Their Owners

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

parrot intelligence

Story at-a-glance -

  • Scientists say the pontine nuclei area in parrots’ brains transfers information between the cortex and cerebellum, similarly to the way it does in humans, allowing for enhanced processing abilities and more sophisticated behavior
  • Compared with other major avian groups such as waterfowl and owls, only parrots have universally large relative medial spiriform nucleus, or SpM, impacting their high intelligence
  • The importation of wild birds is a multibillion-dollar industry, so when the U.S. banned parrot importation in 1992, domestic breeding boomed; now, there are 10 million to 40 million captive parrots in the U.S. alone
  • Parrots are still “wild,” even if they are called pets, and placing them in captivity has not only caused their numbers to dwindle in the wild, they often suffer from diseases as a result

It’s pretty clear that if many parrot species can mimic human language and sounds like creaking doors and barking dogs, they must be pretty smart. But new research suggests the “intelligence” behind it. In short, Canadian neuroscientists assert that an enlarged area in their brains, similar to the same area in primates, has evolved to connect the cortex and cerebellum.

Cristian Gutierrez-Ibanez, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at the University of Alberta, says the section of parrots’ brains they’ve identified in his team’s research is similar to the neural circuits in the human brain, and that the enhanced intelligence in these fascinating birds is an example of convergent evolution. United Press International (UPI) quotes Gutierrez-Ibanez’s premise:

“An area of the brain that plays a major role in primate intelligence is called the pontine. This structure transfers information between the two largest areas of the brain, the cortex and cerebellum, which allows for higher-order processing and more sophisticated behavior.”1

As UPI observes, the pontine nuclei in the brains of these birds are small compared to those in humans, but another region called the medial spiriform nucleus, or SpM, allows increased connectivity between birds’ cortex and cerebellum. Though it’s in a different region of the brain, the SpM works in a similar way. “The more we look at the brains, the more similarities we see,” Gutierrez-Ibanez says, adding:

“Independently, parrots have evolved an enlarged area that connects the cortex and the cerebellum, similar to primates. This is another fascinating example of convergence between parrots and primates.”2

Not surprisingly, the SpM in parrots is two to five times larger compared to other birds, which is something the researchers found when comparing 98 different bird species, including owls, chickens and ducks. This explains why humans and parrots have advanced cognitive abilities. UPI says the way the pontine nuclei in parrots impacts their self-awareness and tool-use abilities may “yield insights into the neural origins of human intelligence.”3

How Parrots Use Their ‘Higher Intelligence’

Parrots are one of 372 species of Psittacines, including budgies, cockatiels, cockatoos, lovebirds and a host of others. The traits they share include curved beaks and zygodactyl feet, meaning there are four toes on each foot — two facing front and two facing back.4

According to the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, Psittacines were compared with other major avian groups, such as Strigiformes (owls); Anseriformes (waterfowl such as swans and geese); Passerifomes (perching birds with three unwebbed toes in front and a strong toe in back); and Pelecaniformes (birds with four webbed toes). The study authors wrote:

“It is widely accepted that parrots show complex cognitive abilities. These include: tool manufacture, mirror self-recognition, object permanence, meta-cognition, theory of mind, vocal learning, mental time travel and complex social cognition … Compared with other major avian groups (e.g., songbirds, waterfowl, owls), only parrots have universally large relative SpM volumes, indicating that this is a characteristic feature of parrots.”5

There are two features parrots have that are particularly fascinating to humans: both their ability to “speak” and to live a long time. As Science Focus6 notes, parrots are the longest-lived order of birds, and can live to be 75 years or older. As fascinating as that is, it’s become a huge problem for a number of reasons.

The Problem Isn’t That Parrots Live a Long Time

The problem in this modern age is that many parrots live in captivity. PBS Pet Travel contends that African greys are just one variety that can pass through two and even three generations of owners in their lifetime, which poses a problem for a number of reasons. In addition:

“A bird’s lifestyle can have a significant impact on its longevity; in most cases captive birds will significantly outlive their wild counterparts thanks to advanced levels of veterinary care and the elimination of predators.”7

The Dodo estimates there are around 10 million to 40 million parrots living in captivity in the U.S. The importation of wild birds has become a multibillion-dollar industry. When the U.S. banned their importation in 1992, “domestic breeding boomed.” Too often, when their owners age and can’t care for the birds any longer, they’re abandoned. But there are other reasons for this; one is that however long they’re in captivity, parrots are still wild:

“No matter how excited they were to purchase a parrot in the beginning, many people are unable to endure the constant squawking without gun range-quality ear protection (like one owner), and are finding it impossible to keep them in their homes for more than a few years, tops …

Considering that parrots in the wild can fly up to 50 miles in a day, keeping them alive yet cooped up in a tiny cage can also seem akin to torture.

Couple their evolution for flight with their intelligence, and bored, otherwise healthy birds can often start physically suffering from a clipped-wing, sedentary life in captivity ... ultimately succumbing to a chain reaction of health issues starting with increased stress and leading to feather plucking and even heart disease.”8

Unfortunately, “Anybody with $40 can walk into any PetCo and buy a parrot. There are no regulations. You can have as many as you want. You can breed them, you can sell them,” says sanctuary owner Phoebe Linden.9 But parrot ownership is far more complicated than most imagine — and a lifelong responsibility. With that in mind, here are some things to consider:

  • It can cost $100 per month for food (and much more, if you’re feeding an organic, fresh food diet), toys and supplies, and parrots do best consuming a species-specific diet of fresh produce, sprouted grains and whole, organic nuts.
  • Adopt, don’t buy; avoid adding to the demand for captive-bred birds. There are thousands of parrots desperately needing loving homes and committed caretakers.
  • Approach the decision with the resolve to improve the bird's life (not for your own entertainment) and take the time necessary to do it. I strongly recommend every new bird owner (or owners struggling to keep the peace with their parrot) check out The Animal Behavior Center’s online training program for parrot owners.
  • With numbers so low in the wild, every bird counts, especially since their numbers are dwindling in the wild, and the number of abandoned and captive-bred birds is on the rise. Conservation is key. Never buy a wild-caught parrot.
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