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Study: Some Birds as Smart as Apes

  • Faith Lapidus

The cognitive skills of crows, ravens and other corvids are as sophisticated as those of apes, even though they have a much smaller brain. (© Jana Müller)

The cognitive skills of crows, ravens and other corvids are as sophisticated as those of apes, even though they have a much smaller brain. (© Jana Müller)

Bird-brain is not the insult it once was, according to new research into the cognitive skills of birds.

A pair of European scientists reports that crows and parrots can think logically, recognize themselves in a mirror and feel empathy - abilities "as sophisticated and diverse as those of apes."

Birds' brains do not have a neocortex, the structure in mammalian brains that controls cognitive skills. They're also much smaller than simian brains. So how can they perform as well as apes on certain tasks? Onur Güntürkün, from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum suggested that different mechanisms for complex processes developed independently in birds and mammals.

Writing in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, he and Thomas Bugnyar at the University of Vienna report that while the two brains have different structures, there are similarities in the brain architecture. Both groups have a pre-frontal brain structure that controls similar high-level functions.

The authors propose a separate evolutionary path for the similarities, because both animal groups faced the same challenges. They conclude that neither a multi-layered cortex nor a big brain is required for complex mental skills.

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