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Parrot Cognition: Humanoid Intelligence in a Dinosaurian Body

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by Olivia Begasse de Dhaem, MD

Birds never stop to impress the readers of Parrots magazine. As a bird owner, it is fascinating to bond so deeply with a species that separated from humans about 320 million years ago. To put this in perspective, the most recent common ancestor between dogs and humans lived 100 million years ago. New archeological evidence suggests that the appearance of our current birds resembles dinosaurs.

Despite their remote divergence from humans and prehistoric appearance, parrots have been shown to have remarkable cognitive abilities. Dr Irene Pepperberg showed that her African Grey, Alex, could count to eight, add, subtract, and understood the concept of zero. Alex used our referential language for communication and even created words such as ‘yummy bread’ for cake. Alex could categorise objects according to their function, colour, shape, size, number of occurrences, and texture. He could assess the different characteristics of a given object simultaneously such as ‘this is square green wood’. Alex named more than 100 objects.

This article presents the current understanding of the biological basis behind parrots’ intelligence. The genetic, anatomical, organisational, functional, and evolutionary basis of parrots’ intelligence will be reviewed.

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