How Did Birds Get To Be So Smart: Are They “Feathered Apes”?

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on July 27, 2013

Does a peek “into the minds of birds” provide a peek into the origin of ours?

Science: Into the Minds of Birds

Does a peek “into the minds of birds” provide a peek into the origin of ours?

“Why might birds have evolved a rich repertoire of mental abilities?” a recent article in Science asks. Perhaps to deal with the complexities of social interaction, some scientists suggest. And if higher order thinking is actually going on inside bird brains, would that tell us anything about the origin of human intelligence? Some scientists believe it would.

bird-toolExperts in animal cognition debate how birds work out the solutions to problems. The crow in the top photo pulls up a string holding a treat and steps on it while re-grasping the string until it gets the dangling treat. The cockatoo wanting a cashew works a series of five locks to get the nut. Of 11 cockatoos in that experiment, one worked the locks without a demonstration. Images: Brenna Knaebe (top), Alice Auersperg (middle and bottom) through

The Term Bird Brain Is Evolving

Some birds—crows, parrots, and jays—possess problem-solving skills that rival those of mammals. Crows demonstrate impressive memory for details, even remembering for years the faces of people that annoy them. Does this represent true cognitive ability? Some birds can improvise tools—by bending a piece of wire, for instance—to get the food they want. Are they actually reasoning or just associating each step with coming closer to the goal? Are birds able to get a picture in their minds of what they want to accomplish and then reason out the steps, or are simpler stepwise “associative learning” processes involved?

“Into the Minds of Birds” by Science writer Virginia Morrell surveys recent thinking about the controversial question of whether birds actually think. The field of “bird cognition” really took flight after a 2004 study discovered that birds have a more complex forebrain than previously thought. This “provided the neural evidence” to convince skeptics that birds were doing more than mimicking, responding to stimuli, and associating their actions with desired results, according to comparative cognition scientist Corina Logan. Thanks to behavioral neuroscience, she says, “Now bird cognition is hot.”

Toss in Some Convergent Evolution

Some scientists consider super-smart birds products of convergent evolution. They think the evolutionary explanation for bird intelligence would shed light on human evolution. Comparative psychologists Nicola Clayton and Nathan Emery, highlighting the analogy to human and primate evolution from ape-like ancestors, have even dubbed crows “feathered apes.”

Interesting (If Not a Little Disturbing) Scientific Methodology

The first step, however, is to prove birds are as bright as primates. Researchers have now literally looked into the brain to see what lights up when a nervous crow creates memories. To prove “crows’ brains are cognitively flexible,” wildlife biologist John Marzluff’s team at the University of Washington, Seattle, exposed captured crows to a variety of frightening sights. They counted the number of eye blinks to see if the birds were “nervous”—slower blinking denoting crow jitters. Then they quickly anesthetized the birds and slipped them into a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner. The birds were previously injected with a radioactive tracer with a slight delay so that it highlight the parts of the brain that were active during the stimulating visual experience.

bird-brainA masked villain holding a dead crow tyrannizes a watching crow. The nervous crow then undergoes a PET scan revealing the parts of the brain active during the incident. Images: (left to right) John Marzluff, Virginia Morrell/Science; Robert Miyaoka through

From this experiment, researchers learned that crows really do respond with different parts of their brains to various stimuli. For example, the face mask of a “mean” person like a graduate student holding a dead crow is processed in a different part of the brain than the crow uses to observe a predatory red-tailed hawk.

“When looking at me holding a dead crow—but not when looking at a hawk—Bird 7 activated its hippocampus and cerebellum, regions involved in learning and memory,” Morrell wrote after visiting the Seattle laboratory. Interpreting the results, Marzluff explained, “Even though their outward reaction appears to be the same, their mental processing of these threats is very different. The crow wasn’t just responding to a danger when he was watching you. He was learning the features of your masked face. That’s why we think his hippocampus was activated.”

Crows are known to scold and mob predators. And previous research has shown that crows remember predatory people’s faces. Marzluff and his students, back in 2006, captured, banded, and released seven campus crows while wearing a caveman Halloween mask. “To this day, campus crows (even those that the cavemen never handled) harass Marzluff if he wears the caveman mask.” These PET scans therefore likely highlight the part of the crow brain where such memories are formed.

Not all scientists agree that evidence like this demonstrates higher order thinking in birds. As with other bird feats like undoing a series of locks to get at a treat (a cockatoo trick), bending a wire to hook a basket of meat (a New Caledonian crow trick), or cleverly altering their nut-hiding behavior after they discover the joys of theft (a blue jay trait)—these PET scans lead some experts to believe birds must form a mental image of a desired goal and use abstract thinking skills to reason out a solution. Others maintain that the smarter birds simply associate each step of a complex task with negative or positive reinforcement, such as drawing closer to a desirable goodie. Commenting on Marzluff’s PET scans, Duke University neural anatomist Erich Jarvis said this is “the first study that I am aware of that asks cognitive questions about fear and memory in the avian brain using in vivo imaging.” Nevertheless, he cautions Marzluff may be “too quickly explaining the results in purely cognitive terms.”

Back to the Evolution

Some who maintain super-smart birds really do think about their problems believe birds evolved bright brains through the same mechanism to which they attribute primate and human intelligence. After all, evolutionists seek an evolutionary explanation for everything, and since birds and people in their view are on different branches of the evolutionary tree, they presume similar mental abilities were driven to evolve through similar mechanisms, such as social interaction.

Cognitive psychologist Thomas Bugnyar, author of Comparative Cognition and Behavior Reviews, says, “We’re trying to see how well the social intelligence hypothesis fits with nonmammalian species, and corvids [crows] in particular.” He suggests that the complex social lives of crows may have shaped their evolution. If so, then brainy birds would—from his evolutionary view—be examples of convergent evolution and lend support to the “social intelligence hypothesis” explaining human and primate brain evolution.

In a podcast discussing bird cognition, Morrell explains that the “social intelligence hypothesis” proposes that ape and human intelligence evolved from communal living—“having to deal with one another and figuring out what the other person or individual is doing and keeping track of everybody in our society—that's what's driven our large brains and our intelligence. So people looking at corvids and parrots,” she explains, “have taken that same idea and say that's probably the reason why they too are smart and that the social intelligence hypothesis doesn't just apply to humans and primates. It probably applies to these very social-living birds as well.”

Interaction with extended families and even “tactical deception” are thought to have promoted the evolution of intelligence in birds as in primates, Morrell says. Jays, for instance, suspecting that a jay watching them hide a nut plans to steal it, will return later to change the hiding place. She says, “The bird has to remember ‘that bird was watching me; I'm going to go back and get my nut and move it somewhere else where no one is watching me.’ When they did that test they also discovered that it's not so much that when they lose a nut they learn that other jays are thieves; it is actually when they steal somebody else's nut that they understand that other jays can be thieves. ‘Oh, if I’m a thief, you can be a thief,’ and they change their caching behavior after they've stolen somebody else's nut.”

Summing up the application of bird studies to human evolution, Morrell says, “So what they're trying to do is to look at the similarities and differences in jays and crows and parrots' social lives and to see how does that fit in with the social intelligence hypothesis.” 

Darwin, believing human intelligence (like everything else) is a product of evolution, declared in The Descent of Man, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is one of degree and not kind.”1 But despite all the evolutionary just-so-stories, no kind of animal has ever been observed evolving into a new, more complex kind of animal.

A Better Explanation

Learning what makes a bird tick offers a fascinating bit of insight into the creatures our Creator designed and how their brains work.

God provides in His Word the historical account of the origin of birds, man, and all things. Furthermore, the Bible informs us that God is the one who supplies or deprives an animal of its intelligence. In particular, God takes the credit for the lack of bird-smarts in the ostrich, telling Job, “God deprived her of wisdom, and did not endow her with understanding” (Job 39:17). God also points out that He is the source of wisdom for the hawk and eagle (Job 39:26–27). Learning what makes a bird tick offers a fascinating bit of insight into the creatures our Creator designed and how their brains work. But regardless of how well their brains work and how intelligent they are (or aren’t), such discoveries reveal nothing about the origin of human intelligence.

Humans and animals, made by the same Creator, have many similarities. However, humans, being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27), are able to express and understand original abstract thoughts through language. Humans generate symbolic language, whereas animal communication—however amazing—lacks the abstract symbolism, awareness, insight, and creativity evident in human speech. We did not have to evolve our big intelligent brains through the hard knocks of social interaction or through any other means.

God also endowed many animals with great intelligence, but that does not mean intelligence evolved in man, bird, or beast. Interpretation of brilliant bird behavior as evidence of convergent evolution is based on faith in a godless, naturalistic, evolutionary origin that rejects God’s eyewitness account of history in favor of the unsubstantiated and unverifiable notions of man.

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  1. Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: D. Appleton and company, 1872), 101.

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