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Which are more intelligent - large parrots or small?

Expert Question

Hi, I’m wondering how the intelligence level may differ between large parrots vs. small parrots? For example, is an African Grey “smarter” than a Lovebird or a Parrotlet?
From Asa.

Expert Answer

G'day Asa, 

Thought provoking question -- I'm glad you asked.

Debate, generalisations and assumptions about the comparative `intelligence' level of different parrot species has long been an issue that seems to generate some poorly considered discussion amongst parrot keepers. Most of what I read on parrot intelligence has a tendency to set criteria for making judgements on perceived `intelligence' that has little relevance to what would be considered `intelligent' for that species in the wild. As a wildlife biologist, if I have to consider the `intelligence' of different parrot species then it's in an ecological and environmental context -- relevant to the behaviour of the individual in the wild.

Unfortunately, the criterion for intelligence usually set by parrot owners is often highly anthropomorphic and I rarely see any discussion of parrot intelligence accompanied by a suitable and appropriate definition. Perhaps we can consider that here. A quick look at a variety of available definitions for `intelligence’ suggest that it can be defined as an ability to comprehend, understand, benefit from experience, solve problems, use language and learn. These are all skills that every parrot, regardless of the species, needs to employ to be successful in their natural environment. When we appreciate the huge variation in ecological contexts that the 350+ different parrots species that we are concerned with come from, we realise that all have learned how to solve the key problem of surviving and succeeding to the next generation. That, for me, is my best indicator of `intelligence' -- success of an animal in its natural environmental state. Drop me off somewhere deep in the jungles of South America, or the arid inland of Australia, and I'm not sure that I'd last more than a couple of days - and I’m supposed to be a fairly intelligent guy.

In captive environments we have a tendency to place demands on parrots and make judgements about their `intelligence' in contexts that often have a huge set of unrealistic expectations embedded in them. These captive contexts often also fail to provide the most appropriate conditions, stimuli and teaching practices that are required to set the bird up to succeed. What might be best to question is the `intelligence' of the keeper and whether or not they have provided the environmental conditions required to facilitate their parrot demonstrating its capacity to engage effectively with its surrounds, whether that be in performing a trick, extending their vocabulary or simply flying to the hand on cue. The parrot, whether it's an African Grey, Lovebird, Budgerigar or Hyacinth Macaw, has the capacity to learn -- do we have the capacity to be the good teacher they need and set up the environment they require for their `true' intelligence to shine?

Kind Regards from `Down Under'
Jim McKendry

Jim McKendry
About Jim McKendry

Jim McKendry BTeach BAppSc (Wildlife Biology)

Jim provides consultancy services on parrot behaviour through Parrot Behaviour & Enrichment Consultations ( He holds Bachelor’s degrees in Teaching (ACU) and Applied Science (UQ) and is a Senior Biology and Environmental Sciences teacher. Jim’s approach to education on parrot behaviour aims to connect the behaviours we see amongst psittacines in the wild with those we observe in captivity to best inform environmental arrangement for behavioural success. An Applied Behaviour Analysis approach to assessing behaviour is the foundation of his consultancy assessments on individual parrot clients.

He has worked professionally as an Avian Trainer and Presentations Keeper at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and since 2005 has delivered a series of annual workshops at the Sanctuary on progressive approaches to companion parrot behaviour and enrichment. From 2009 to 2011 Jim worked as the resident consultant on parrot behaviour and enrichment at Brisbane Bird and Exotics Veterinary Services. He is a professional member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators ( and a member of the World Parrot Trust’s Expert Panel of educators.  Jim writes a regular column, Pet Parrot Pointers, for Australian Birdkeeper Magazine and is an editorial consultant on parrot behaviour for this publication.

Visit Jim’s site on the web at