How Smart Are Cockatiels: What We Know & What We Don’t Know

Cockatiels are very popular pet birds all around the world. These small parrots are social and easy to tame and train.

But does the ability to learn tricks or memorize words or songs constitute true intelligence? Is cockatiel intelligence comparable to people’s intelligence and, if so, what is the equivalent?

How smart are cockatiels? Let’s explore this topic now!

How Smart Are Cockatiels

Cockatiels are smart enough to learn and repeat complex songs, tricks, words, and phrases.

However, cockatiel intelligence has not been widely studied outside of anecdotal evidence from proud owners.

Learn About Parrot Intelligence From Experts

Cockatoos are the cockatiel’s larger and louder cousin. In fact, cockatoos and cockatiels are classified in a family separate from all other parrot species!

In this YouTube video, you can see examples of just how smart cockatoos are at essential tasks like solving puzzles and making tools.

Researchers state that cockatoos perform many of these tasks better than primates and on par with young human children.

What does this indicate as far as cockatiel intelligence? Read on to find out!

What Is a Cockatiel’s Brain Size

Without the ability to talk between species using a common language, researchers have to identify other possible common markers that can be used to define intelligence.

For many generations, one of the most widely used and reputable tools in the world of research biology has been brain size.

But today, overall brain size is no longer the gold standard when it comes to measuring intelligence.

After all, if the size of a bird’s brain truly represented their intelligence, all birds would probably rank pretty low on the interspecies intelligence totem pole!

So to solve this problem, researchers had to look further to investigate the organization of the avian brain, the number of cells, and the number of neurons, to get a more accurate assessment of intellectual capacity.

In other words, how many cells and neurons are present ounces for ounce between one brain and the next?

As Science Daily points out, this has proven essential for evaluating avian intelligence in particular.

After all, some birds are so tiny their brain size alone might indicate they are dunces, which is precisely where the derogative term “bird brain” originally came from.

But once researchers adjusted their research parameters to compare neuron density within the brain rather than sheer brain size, a very different picture of avian intelligence started to emerge.

Bird forebrains tend to have even more neurons than the brains of primates.

Neuron for neuron, researchers now believe this makes bird brains as smart as, if not smarter than, the brains of most primates, an order which includes humans, or Homo sapiens.

Smarter Birds Have Bigger Brains

It is one thing to compare the intelligence of a parrot-like cockatiel to the intelligence of other non-avian species such as primates.

And it is another thing to evaluate how smart the cockatiel is when compared to other birds and, specifically, to other parrots.

As the respected journal Nature explains, within the greater assorted species of birds, a bird with a bigger brain size relative to its body size typically exhibits greater intelligence than a bird with smaller brain size.

The example given compares a parrot to a chicken. Even though chicken owners will claim their birds are as smart as any other bird out there, from the researchers’ perspective, many smaller parrot species are smarter than the average chicken.

The true measure comes into play when the bird in question has a large brain relative to its body size and that brain has a high density of neurons.

This indicates the bird has the capacity to memorize and use complex language (song or words), make tools, solve puzzles and do the same types of activities as the smartest primates and even human children.

How Smart Are Cockatiels Compared to Cockatoos

When comparing cockatiel intelligence specifically, researchers typically begin by looking to the cockatiel’s closest avian relative, the cockatoo, for a benchmark.

The cockatoo has been observed in the wild and in captivity performing many feats of intelligence once thought to be limited to primates.

Whether in an uncontrolled setting (with no tampering by humans) or in a controlled laboratory setting for research, cockatoos have been quick to problem-solve and master new skills.

The birds have also been able to find creative ways to solve complicated puzzles, even if the way a research bird chose to solve the puzzle wasn’t what the human researcher had in mind!

The interesting thing about comparing cockatiels to any other parrot species, including cockatoos, is that scientists are still in a debate about how closely related the cockatiel is to any other parrot species.

Researchers do agree that cockatiels are more closely related to cockatoos than to any other parrot species.

But they may be more closely related to some of the 21 known cockatoo species than to others, which makes an apples-to-apples comparison of intelligence difficult.

In any case, it has only been in the last handful of years that science even realized that having a “bird brain” could be something to be proud of.

Here, The Alex Foundation researcher Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her late African Grey research bird Alex deserve much of the credit for finding creative ways to demonstrate avian intelligence to the world.

Dr. Pepperberg taught Alex specific terminology to use to describe how he perceived the world.

Through this unique and carefully documented research process, Dr. Pepperberg was even able to demonstrate that Alex understood abstract concepts, such as the existence of no numbers – more typically expressed as “zero.”

Do cockatiels also understand abstract concepts? Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer yet.

Evidence of Cockatiel Intelligence

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), in the world of canine intelligence research, canine intelligence is typically divided into three types:

– Instinctive: a product of the dog’s breeding and genetics.
– Adaptive: independent problem-solving in the environment.
– Working and obedience: learning tricks and commands.

With bird species, researchers have yet to quantify avian intelligence so precisely. But as the American Audubon Society explains, researchers use a number of tests to gauge the intelligence of one bird species versus another.

Many of these tests involve the same types of challenges we have already discussed here, such as tool making and tool use, problem-solving, memory, and even reactions to music (here, cockatoos, in particular, tend to excel).

Cockatiels also demonstrate many of these types of avian intelligence. Many owners describe how their cockatiels develop special sounds or calls just for them and different whistles to express different needs or desires.

Cockatiels Are Smart In Many Ways

Even in the absence of direct scientific data that can quantify just how smart cockatiels are as opposed to non-avians and other avians, there is no doubt cockatiels are intelligent.

Because male cockatiels tend to be more vocal than females, it is easy to assume that males are smarter. But vocalizing is just one possible demonstration of avian intelligence.

As anyone who has ever cared for a cockatiel already knows, these bright and social birds quickly memorize faces and can distinguish their owner from all others.

Most importantly, no two birds are identical in their intellectual capabilities. Some cockatiels excel at learning complicated tunes while others make up their own games. There is much more to learn about cockatiel intelligence.

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