Ask any birder which birds are the smartest on our planet and you’ll get one of two answers — corvids (i.e., crows, ravens, magpies and jays) or parrots.
I have to admit that I am a wee bit biased toward the former if only because I head an informal team trying to establish the Canada jay as our country’s national bird. But let me put that aside and examine some recent evidence.
This past year, I watched an amazing YouTube video of an African grey parrot observing a human place a food item in a box with a whole series of locking devices, including threaded wheels, latches and the like. Immediately thereafter, the parrot reversed all of the steps with ease and retrieved the food.
I certainly would be remiss here if I did not mention Alex, the famous African grey, that “worked” with Irene Pepperberg, a professor of psychology and cognitive behaviour, who has taught at Purdue and MIT’s Media Lab and now works at Harvard University. She conducted multiple experiments with Alex, culminating in numerous scientific publications, lectures and, eventually, the popular book Alex & Me. While not all psychologists bought her arguments, she successfully convinced me that Alex and its kind could definitely engage in abstract communication and, in doing so, exhibit a fairly high level of intelligence for a bird.
These feats notwithstanding, I simply do not think a grey parrot, which most parrot-lovers claim to be the smartest bird in the world, can do what crows, especially New Caledonian crows, can achieve. As far back as 2002, under the watchful eyes of several scientists in a laboratory at Oxford University, one of these crows named Betty picked up a piece of wire in her cage and then used a nearby object to bend one end of it into a hooked tool. She then used the tool to lift out a small container of a desirable food item, from inside a plastic tube.
While everyone concluded that Betty was a stupendously clever bird, it turns out that this type of behaviour is old hat for this species in the wild. Free-ranging New Caledonian crows commonly fashion tools, like a hooked stick, from vegetation without ever seeing how it is done and use them to scoop insects out of holes in tree trunks. It goes beyond that though. These amazing crows do not do this with just any old stick. They seek out a particular type of plant stem with which to make their tools. They are even able to identify and use the stems after humans have disguised them by attaching leaves from another plant. In other words, they are looking for the right tool for the right job, something I often cannot do!
A more recent experiment shown on the BBC television series Inside the Animal Mind further demonstrated the smarts of these birds. A New Caledonian crow named 007 solved an eight-step puzzle without even watching a human do it first. Yes, the bird had learned the different steps individually, but it also applied its cognitive abilities to make those steps in the correct order to achieve its goal! This means that these crows are capable of planning ahead.
With that kind of thinking, crows and ravens and their related kin species certainly get my vote as the most intelligent birds on the planet.