Dog owners universally believe their canine companion is smarter, more loyal and more empathetic than any other pet a human being can own.
But what if they’re wrong and the creature that gave rise to the derogatory term “bird-brain” is actually the smarter one? Specifically, a parrot.
Are parrots smarter than dogs? A border collie is considered to be the smartest dog of all but they aren’t smarter than African Grey parrots. An African Grey called Alex was considered to be the most intelligent animal in the world because he asked an existential question – he looked in a mirror and asked “what color?”.
We can’t generalize, as parrots and dogs are broad classifications but there is much anecdotal evidence of the cleverness (as opposed to intelligence) of both species. However, a Harvard University study determined that the African Grey parrot had the intelligence of a 3-4-year-old.
This article examines some of the ways parrots out-perform dogs in both logical and existential intelligence, and in the interests of comparing apples with apples as it were, I am going to compare an Amazon Grey parrot with a Border Collie dog.
How smart is smart
Independent researchers discovered that the brains of birds contain more neurons per square centimeter than those of mammalian brains. The parrots have the same number of neurons as, say, a monkey but because they are more densely packed the birds have more cognitive power.
Parrots can recognize faces and studies have shown they are able to distinguish between human voices. They also sing songs and, aptly for this article, Groucho the most famous singing parrot was able to sing How much is that doggie in the window?
When it comes to talking parrots, here are a few of our articles that also might interest you:
- When do parrots start talking?
- Do parrots understand what they are saying?
- How many words can a parrot learn?
Who is a good boy
The Border Collie earned its reputation as the smartest dog due to its trainability. Stanley Coren, a neuropsychologist uses this measure to indicate a dog’s level of intelligence.
He characterized the most intelligent dogs as those that required a command only five or fewer times. The Border Collie had a 95% success rate.
Dogs of course also recognize specific people and their voices and they can sing also but it’s a type of howling and no words are evident.
The main difference between parrots and dogs is their ability to communicate. Or maybe, their method of communication.
Dogs will go for help if their owner is hurt and communicate the situation by barking, growling, dragging at clothes until they can persuade the help to accompany them.
Border collies can think for themselves and solve problems so they can complete tasks. They’re able to make decisions if they’re working sheep out of sight of their owners and are constantly searching their surroundings for any signs of danger.
Unlike parrots, however, they do not recognize shapes, numbers, or colors.
Mirror, mirror, who is the smartest of them all
Alex, representing Parrots
The smartest parrot of all was an African Grey parrot called Alex. He was the subject of a 30-year experiment by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg.
Prior to this experiment, it was believed that a larger brain was required to handle complex communication and a bird was not considered to be clever at all.
In fact, the term bird brain was coined for precisely this reason. By the end of the experiment, Pepperberg had shown that Alex was on a par with the Great Apes and had the logistical intelligence of a five-year-old.
At the time of his death, she also believed his emotional intelligence was that of a two-year-old.
Among his accomplishments, Alex could distinguish between colors and shapes and understand bigger and smaller. He also showed anger and/or surprise when confronted with an object he wasn’t expecting to see during a test.
Chaser, representing Dogs
On the other hand, we have Chaser, a female Border Collie owned by John Pilly, a retired psychology professor. Mr. Pilley was interviewed in 2014 and at that time he had been teaching Chaser five hours a day, five days a week, for nine years.
She had more than 1,000 toys and could identify over 95 percent of them by name. When she was just a puppy John Pilley realized she could recognize the words by inferring what they were when he would point to them.
This is in fact how a human child learns words. Mr. Pilley believed Chaser, therefore, had the intelligence of a two-year-old. Dr. Brian Hare, the founder of Dognition, believes Chaser to be the most important dog in modern scientific research.
Chaser is still going strong and has her own Facebook page if you’d like to check her out https://www.facebook.com/chaserthebc/
An African Grey parrot will quickly become bored if it is left to its own devices. In this case, it’s very similar to a Border Collie.
Both species have extremely active brains and need almost constant stimulation, whether it is playing or training.
If left untended or untrained they can become destructive. The parrot may start to pluck out its feathers while the dog will herd anything that moves—owners, children, other pets, often nipping if the object doesn’t move fast enough.
While researching this article I’ve come across many funny stories of parrot vs dog that would put Tom & Jerry to shame.
Take the one about the old blind dog and the mean parrot who would call the dog’s name and laugh hilariously as the poor dog made its way towards him, banging into furniture as it crossed the room.
Because the parrot is a mimic it’s quite probable that it is laughing in response to situations it has seen its owner laugh at in the past. So, if you jump when you hear an unexpected sound, your parrot knows that if it screeches unexpectedly beside your ear you are going to jump.
And it will laugh. I would argue this is more than mimicry—its laughter is a logical conclusion to a prank. Dogs have a playful nature and consider many of their ‘jobs’ to be their play.
Their clever ways often leave their owners outsmarted as they search the horizon for their wayward dog only to discover that as they turn, the dog is turning behind them – only appearing when the owner’s worry becomes apparent.
Their grin with a lolling tongue is evidence they definitely have a sense of humor.
Also, did you know that most parrots get along with dogs pretty well? Learn more about that by reading our article here!
My research has led me to believe that the verbal ability of a parrot to communicate will always make it the winner in the smarts test, regardless of who its competitors are.
However, verbal skills aside, the training capability of both species’ owners is what will ultimately determine their pets’ intelligence.
What are the smartest animals? We know that chimpanzees are 99 percent identical to humans but female dolphins can pass skills to their daughters, elephants display empathy and crows are cunning. Even the humble squirrels have been known to cover themselves in the scent of rattlesnakes to deter predators.
What are the most intelligent birds? Parrots are not necessarily the most intelligent birds in the world. The common Crow is perhaps the most intelligent of all. Their intelligence is rated on their ability to solve problems, make tools, and consider future events.