Amongst humans, we widely recognize that certain skills are a form of intelligence. A great musician may be referred to as a genius, even if their traditional “intellectual” skills like arithmetic or rhetoric are poor. A fantastically talented cook or dancer may be a genius without ever demonstrating any knowledge of science or history. Sometimes, genius is less about book smarts and more about raw talent. It turns out, among birds, there may be a correlation between talent and certain kinds of intellect.
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A recent study has suggested that birds with complex vocalizations may tend to perform better when tasked with problem-solving. This would mean that nature’s best singers would be the best at thinking through a puzzle as well. The study examined hundreds of songbirds and organized them based on the number of vocalizations they produce and their complexity. The birds were then subjected to a variety of intelligence tests to determine if a connection could be made between singing and intelligence.
At first glance, it seems obvious that vocal complexity and brainpower would be connected. Some of the animal kingdom’s most famous prodigies are birds that possess both. Corvids, like crows and ravens, and parrots, like the super talkative African Gray, are known to be both great at producing complex vocalizations and imitations as well as superior problem-solving. Both parrots and corvids can emulate human sounds and are known to be able to use tools to solve problems. Extend this idea to other birds and other forms of learning and it begins to fall apart.
When studying songbird cognition relative to singing abilities, researchers found the results to be inconclusive. It was difficult to correlate singing ability with learning ability and self control amongst the 214 birds that researchers tested. What they were able to conclude, however, was a decisive link between singing and one particular type of intelligence. Birds with complex vocal capabilities were found to be more skilled problem-solvers.
Throughout the study, the number of vocalizations that a songbird learns in its lifetime was found to correlate to its speed when tackling a problem-solving task. Birds with more vocal complexity mastered the problem-solving challenges presented to them at a higher speed than similarly tested birds with fewer vocalizations.
The study also noted that birds with more complex vocalizations tended to have larger brain to body-size ratios. Brain size is an important predictor of intelligence in birds.
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