Which Species are America’s Smartest Birds?

Our smartest birds prove that the phrase “bird brain” is really a compliment! Learn which species top the list.

When it comes to the smartest birds, we humans still have a lot to learn. Bird intelligence comes in many forms, and scientists are finding that many species exhibit intelligence similar to that of marine mammals, apes and even humans. Parrots immediately come to mind, with their ability to solve problems, form emotional bonds, mimic speech and even understand some rudimentary grammar.

But smarts aren’t the sole domain of tropical birds. Corvids—including crows, ravens, jays and magpies—are renowned for their intelligence too, and many other backyard birds are no slouches. Take a look at the smart birds that get bragging rights for their amazingly brainy behavior.

Smartest Birds
Mockingbirds use their mimicking calls to chase off predators. Ron Newhouse

Smartest Birds: Planning and Memorizing
Some birds, especially woodpeckers and jays, hoard nuts for later feeding. Not only is the collecting and caching of food an example of planning for the future, the birds’ ability to find their hidden treasure later on demonstrates impressive long-term memory. Similarly, fruit eaters such as robins and cedar waxwings remember where specific trees are and when they will fruit. Hummingbirds recall which individual plants in their habitat are rich with nectar and will return each year to those very flowers, trees or bushes.

Smartest Birds: Working Together
Smart birds work cooperatively and understand the concepts of mutual benefit and the greater good. Harris’s hawks of the Southwest hunt in family packs similar to those of wolves or lions, working together to flush and ambush prey. Wild turkeys line up wing to wing and walk across fields, knowing they can flush more insects in that formation than if they scattered or walked single file. Crows live in highly structured family groups comprising several generations; they readily team up to mob predators, knowing there is strength in numbers.

The smartest birds are even wise enough to transcend species barriers. Chickadees and nuthatches, for example, have been observed responding to each other’s predator warning calls, in a kind of predator-alert symbiosis.

Bird Intelligence: Recognizing Faces
Many birds bravely defend their nests, attacking potential predators to drive them away, but this defensive behavior is typically indiscriminate. Any perceived threat is mobbed or dive-bombed. Yet a recent study of northern mockingbirds documented that they not only recognize individuals of a potentially dangerous species but remember an individual’s past behavior and single him or her out for attack. Researchers determined this by asking a series of people to approach a mockingbird nest. One particular person approached the nest several times. The birds learned to recognize this individual and could actually pick him out of a crowd, marking him as a threat and pre-emptively attacking him, while ignoring others who randomly walked by the nest.

This behavior has been reported anecdotally in other species as well, including robins. Further research could well reveal that still other kinds of birds have this ability to recognize not just a threatening species but a particular human or other potential predator—undeniably a sign of sophisticated intelligence.

Bird Intelligence: Mimics
Speaking of mockingbirds, they’re astonishing in their ability to learn and mimic foreign noises. They get their name, of course, from the ease with which they can deliver the songs of shrikes, blackbirds, orioles, killdeer, jays, hawks and even frogs. Other smart birds are almost as versatile. Steller’s jays mimic many wild birds, as well as chickens, squirrels, cats and dogs. Blue jays expertly imitate red-shouldered hawks. European starlings (which, despite their name, are widespread in North America) learn and repeat the songs of eastern wood pewee, killdeer, meadowlarks and many others; they even mimic cellphone ring tones and other urban noises. In captivity, the exceptionally intelligent raven has been taught to mimic human words. Move over, Polly!

Smartest Birds: Solving Problems

Smartest BirdsAlexis Hayes
Green herons have been observed using tools while fishing. Alexis Hayes

Some smart birds are savvy enough to use trial and error to adapt to new situations. Bald eagles have been seen swimming across the surface of the water, dragging prey behind them, after attempts at holding on to the prize while in flight proved ineffectual. They’ll also crack ice with their strong beaks and then jump up and down on it, breaking through to expose open water for fishing.

And we know that the smartest birds understand cause and effect. Gulls drop mollusks and crustaceans from high in the air, letting them crash on the rocks to crack their hard shells. Ravens often follow the sounds of hunters’ gunshots, having learned that such noises mean the possibility of scavenging the remains of the game after field dressing.

Smartest Birds: Using Tools
Tool use was once believed to be -exclusive to humans—one of the things that set us apart from all other species. But study after study has shown that many other species use tools to survive. We take for granted that nest-building birds use twigs, plant fibers, hair, spiderwebs, lichen, mud and even plastic to build nests – definite tool use. Other even more astounding examples have come to light, though, showing how much smarter birds are than previously thought.

Predatory shrikes, lacking the strong talons of raptors to grip their prey while feeding, use thorns or even barbed wire to impale their victims for easier eating. Gila woodpeckers use bits of bark for scooping up honey to bring back to their young. Green herons have been observed fishing with bits of bread that people have tossed out for ducks, learning that they can use the bait to lure small fish to the surface, where they are easily caught. And one of the oldest and most whimsical stories of a bird using a tool is the Aesop fable “The Crow and the Pitcher.” In the tale, the crow drops pebbles into a pitcher of water, raising the level of the liquid so it can take a drink. What’s more, animal behaviorists have confirmed that this trick wouldn’t be beyond the capacity of an intelligent crow. So it looks as if Aesop knew what he was talking about!

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David Mizejewski
David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, as well as a nationally recognized media personality and speaker. He is the author of the book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife.