Quirks and Quarks

Parrot's unique brain structure explains why they're so smart

Parrot smarty-pants challenge 'bird brain' insult
Parrots such as this mackaw have a knack for planning out the steps needed to crack open a nut. No trial and error needed. (Pixabay)

Parrot problem solvers

Parrots rival apes and even two-year-olds in their intelligence. Now Alberta scientists have found a unique circuitry in their brains that could explain the birds' extraordinary ability to fasten tools and to tell friend from foe. 

Researchers at the University of Lethbridge have amassed one of the world's largest collections of bird brains. Now it's allowing scientists to investigate why parrots outsmart owls, chickens and many other of our feathered friends.

Just how smart are parrots? In the lab, they're able to bend a wire to fish out food from a deep in a tube. In the wild, they immediately plan a series of steps to crack open a coconut. 

Parrots also recognize themselves in the mirror. They're also able to understand the intentions of others, such as recognizing which birds are their brother, trusted friend or challenging foe, said Cristian Gutierrez-Ibanez, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. 

"They can solve problems very easily or without having to trial and error," said Gutierrez-Ibanez.

Gutierrez-Ibanez worked with psychology Prof. Doug Wylie and colleagues to look at circuits in the brains of nearly 100 birds.

Brain's highway 

In primate brains, structures called the pontine nuclei transfer information between two large regions — the cortex (responsible for thinking and processing information) and the cerebellum (best known for motor learning like coordination and balance.)

"When we look at the pons in parrots, we found that it's not that large. It's actually kind of small. That's surprising," said Gutierrez-Ibanez. 

So he kept looking. Lo and behold, the parrots' brains had another large structure that seemed to play the same highway-like role of transferring information, allowing for sophisticated behaviour.

Shaped by evolution

The "highway" is called the medial spongiform nucleus or SpM. Researchers found it's two to five times larger in parrots than the other birds they checked. Parrots' forebrains were also twice as packed with neurons compared with primates of the same size, the researchers found. 

Wylie said the fact that parrots have evolved the same connectivity through different pathways than primates suggests they faced the same selective pressure to take on sophisticated behaviour. 

He noted there are 11,000 species of birds. By amassing such as large collection of bird brains, the researchers hope to understand more about their diversity and intelligence. Next on their wish list? Birds in the crow family. They're also known for their tool-making prowess.