How can birds, with their tiny heads, be so smart? This question (often cloaked in scientific jargon) has perplexed researchers for years. Processing power takes up space: the more neurons, the better. Why do you think gigantic supercomputers are so much stronger than laptops?
So what underlies birds' cognitive feats-- such as tool manufacture, problem solving, future planning, mirror self-recognition, vocal mimicry, and more?
Bird brains are jam-packed with neurons. Per unit mass, a bird brain has far more neurons than a monkey brain. This means that a parrot's walnut-sized brain is the cognitive equal of a far larger monkey brain. Plus, each neuron in a parrot's head is closer to other neurons-- meaning that its brain can more quickly process information.
The authors conclude that "the nuclear architecture of the avian brain appears to exhibit more efficient packing of neurons and their interconnections than the layered architecture of the mammalian neocortex."
Translation? Bow to your future avian overlords.
Many thanks to Martina Schiestl and Greg Guitchounts for finding this article
Birds are remarkably intelligent, although their brains are small. Corvids and some parrots are capable of cognitive feats comparable to those of great apes. How do birds achieve impressive cognitive prowess with walnut-sized brains? We investigated the cellular composition of the brains of 28 avian species, uncovering a straightforward solution to the puzzle: brains of songbirds and parrots contain very large numbers of neurons, at neuronal densities considerably exceeding those found in mammals. Because these “extra” neurons are predominantly located in the forebrain, large parrots and corvids have the same or greater forebrain neuron counts as monkeys with much larger brains. Avian brains thus have the potential to provide much higher “cognitive power” per unit mass than do mammalian brains.