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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2006 Jan 29;361(1465):23-43.

Cognitive ornithology: the evolution of avian intelligence.

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Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge, Madingley, Cambridge CB3 8AA, UK.


Comparative psychologists interested in the evolution of intelligence have focused their attention on social primates, whereas birds tend to be used as models of associative learning. However, corvids and parrots, which have forebrains relatively the same size as apes, live in complex social groups and have a long developmental period before becoming independent, have demonstrated ape-like intelligence. Although, ornithologists have documented thousands of hours observing birds in their natural habitat, they have focused their attention on avian behaviour and ecology, rather than intelligence. This review discusses recent studies of avian cognition contrasting two different approaches; the anthropocentric approach and the adaptive specialization approach. It is argued that the most productive method is to combine the two approaches. This is discussed with respects to recent investigations of two supposedly unique aspects of human cognition; episodic memory and theory of mind. In reviewing the evidence for avian intelligence, corvids and parrots appear to be cognitively superior to other birds and in many cases even apes. This suggests that complex cognition has evolved in species with very different brains through a process of convergent evolution rather than shared ancestry, although the notion that birds and mammals may share common neural connectivity patterns is discussed.

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