When we discuss intelligence among animals, these animals always come into mind.
But there is one group that often gets left out.
There is no absolute in defining intelligence.
For animals, it can be logic, and all kinds of ability, such as, in adaptation and exploration.
So, scientists prefer the word
when it comes to birds.
Even so, testing the cognitive ability is still a scientific challenge.

In some cases, what seems as impressive feat is simply a learned reflex.
A flock of starlings soaring through the sky might seems some mysterious level of intelligence that enables the synchronized flight.

But the truth is each bird is just obeying a few simple rules in relation to those around them, rather than exercising their cognitive prowess.
It is commonly assumed that larger brain implies higher intelligence.
In certain cases, this logic holds up.
A New Caledonian crow has a small brain that weighs 7.5 gram.
However, relatively speaking, they have pretty big brains.
When compared to their total weight of 200 gram, 7.5 is a lot.

Their brains, just like humans, are huge relative to their bodies.
This characteristic is being classified as
Hyperinflated Brain
On the course of evolution since their ancestors - dinosaurs,
while everything else has evolved smaller or more streamlined,
their brains have barely changed at all.
All to save space for a bigger brain.
But it's not just brain size that is important.
Mountain Chickadee
Take the mountain chickadee, with their brain size just twice a pea, they can save food in thousand locations and can remember the places for up to 6 months!
How do they manage?
It is due to
the process of generating new neuron cells that carry around information through the brain.
Birds who engage in this practice have relatively high rate of neurogenesis.
Tool Use
Tool use is documented in less than 1% of species.
Tool making is really the epitome of human intelligence because of the precision and visual cognition it requires.
Benjamin Franklin referred human as "Homo Faber" that means "man the toolmaker".
But did you know that birds use and make tools too?
The New Caledonian Crows use, make, and know how to use tools in order.

They trims the branches off twigs to make long sticks to access hard-to-reach places.

They make hooked tools to catch insect larvae.
Humans are the only species that makes hooked tools; even chimps don't make such sophisticated implements.

This video shows a New Caledonian crow solving a 8-step puzzle.
He figured out how to use every tool and knew in which order to use them to retrieve the food.

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Social Intelligence
the capacity to effectively navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments
Simply put, you need to be smart to engage with another member of your species.
Birds display a wide variety of social skills.
They are great at building complex social structures.
Chicken form stable social groups based on hierarchies in just a few days.

In fact, the colloquial term for hierarchical system of social organisation - "Pecking Order" - comes from the ladder structure of chicken's serious social order.

The higher-ranked birds enjoy the best food and physical safety while the lower ones get the leftovers.
Rooks console each other after a fight with what strongly resembles kissing.
Western scrub jay often flock to the place where their group members die.
Mirror test is a method to identify the ability of self-recognition in animals.

Very few species have passed the test. And magpie being one of them.
Researchers applied a small color sticker to the throat of the magpies. When the birds see themselves in the mirror, they scratch at their throats, an evidence of recognizing itself in the mirror.
Birdsong is the closest thing to language.
- Charles Darwin -
Any animal can make a call. But to sing, a bird needs to pick out, remember and imitate sounds for its own use.
This is very similar to the way people learn languages.
Mockingbird absorb more and more songs over the course of their lives, which they in turn imitate.

The more and complex sounds they can do, the higher chance they can impress a female.

While a beautiful blessing, their song is also a dangerous curse attracting predators.
Satin Bowerbird
The male bowerbird displays crazy artistic skills in his courtship attempt to win over the female birds.
He builds elaborate bower using twigs of appropriate size,and decorates it with variety of objects and flowers.
A female examines the bower and watches the male dances to win her affection.
This is a high stake situation, only a small amount of male succeed.
This practice is a great example of the many cognitive skills of the bird.
It demonstrates the bird's penchant for architectural design, attention to detail, keen visual sensibility, and the ability to perceive and sort colors.
Not just the males that show keen visual skills, we can also say that the females can judge beauty by choosing the most attractive display.
Master Navigator
Birds possess impressive sense of direction. They easily traverse the globe time after time without getting lost.
Migratory birds travel across the world and back, year after year, and are able to find their way even if they are displaced.
Scientist picked up a group of sparrows and took them 2,300 miles away from their usual flight route.

Within just a few hours of being released, the birds easily found their migration path again.
How do they do it?
They might actually have innate navigational abilities.
Bird's brain contain mental maps of important visual landmarks, some of which are extremely intricate.

Evidence also suggests that they have built-in compass.
Study on pigeons with frosted goggle shows that they still can find their way home even without the key aspects of their mental and visual maps.

They also appear to be sensitive to Earth's magnetic fields.
Clark's nutcracker can recall 5,000 food storing locations for over 9 months with 70% accuracy.
Adaptive Genius
You will regularly encounter sparrow regardless of where you live.
These birds are so successful as a result of their adaptability.
They have existed for 10,000 years and are still spreading.
They live in very harsh climates and inhospitable places, like at 100,000 ft in the heart of Rocky Mountains.
They eat basically anything, from seeds, flowers to insects and mice. They can survive in any environment. While some die from trying poisonous food, this trial and error introduce new food sources to the species as a whole.
They make their nests anywhere from a gutter to a roof to a pipe, and build them out of strange materials. Some use cigarette butts to ward off parasites.
However not all species are so adaptive.
Climate change is a serious challenge to the survival of birds.
Some do well,while others not so.

In the end, those who survive global warming are those with the adaptive intelligence to change with their environment.
Research has shown that birds exhibit impressive and wide-ranging cognitive abilities.

It seems we owe those with feathers and beaks far more credit than they've been given.
Bonus Read
Why Neuroscientists Need to Study the Crow
Image Credits
If you feel like any of these images are being used in an inappropriate manner, let us know, we’ll honor any valid takedown request.

Fold 2 :
Dolphin by Arturo Alejandro Romo Escartin from the Noun Project
Elephant by Yasin from the Noun Project
Bird drawing by Rebekah Yong
Fold 6:
Crow illustration from "Gifts of the Crow" by John Marzluff & Tony Angell
Fold 12:
Are crows the ultimate problem solvers? - Inside the Animal Mind - BBC on Youtube
Watercolor texture by Marysse93 on Deviantart
Fold 17:
Satin bowerbird (credit: Gerhard Koertner / Photoshot)
Bower of Vogelkop bowerbird (credit: Tim Laman /

Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2014 Foldry, repurposing allowed within limits.