Life Lines by Dr. Dolittle

Sponsored by the American Physiological Society

Big-brained birds

Birds get such a bad rap when it comes to intelligence. Sure they have relatively small brains, but scientists have known they are similar to primates with respect to their cognitive abilities. New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presents data showing how this apparent dichotomy is possible. They found that the brains of songbirds and parrots pack two times the number of neurons as a primate of similar size. This means that these birds are able to pack neurons more tightly than mammals, which allows them to fit more brain cells in a smaller package. Moreover, the neuron content in the forebrain of a parrot is the same or even greater that primates. In fact, the team found that the brain of a parrot contains a similar number of neurons as a medium-sized primate. These findings suggest that we need to reconsider the notion that brain size = intelligence and perhaps look at neuron density instead.

So the next time someone calls you a bird brain, simply say “thank you!”


Olkowicz S, Kocourek M, Lucan RK, Portes M, Fitch WT, Herculano-Houzel S, Nemec P. Birds have primate-like numbers of neurons in the forebrain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Epub ahead of print – June 13, 2016] doi: 10.1073/pnas.1517131113                         

Categories: Extreme Animals, Intelligence and Neuroscience

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