Birds Are Smarter Than We Thought

Researchers are finding that some birds actually understand what we’re saying, and may even have the intelligence of a five-year-old person. Tests done by Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at both Brandeis and Harvard universities, show that African gray parrots can comprehend questions and give answers.

"They understand things like categories of color, material and shape, number concepts, and concepts of bigger and smaller, concepts of similarity and difference, and absence; things we once thought that a bird could not comprehend, these parrots are showing us it's possible," says Pepperberg in a story published by the National Science Foundation.

In her lab at Brandeis University, Pepperberg conducts experiments on the birds, showing them images and asking what they are. When it’s a square, they often respond correctly: “four-corner.” They frequently get the answer right even when the object is partially obscured, she says, a skill that she would expect them to have in the wild when looking for predators.

The data could also lead to innovations in how to teach children with learning disabilities. A colleague used the training methods to help autistic kids learn speech and communication skills. The work may give significant insight into what we know about language, she says.

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