Griffin, an African Grey parrot, was challenged to visual memory games against human adults and children (Credit: Harvard University)

The term "bird brain" is frequently used to describe a person's lack of intelligence and good decision-making ability. However, some scientists believe it should be considered a compliment, given that many birds can perform tasks that were once considered solely within the realm of humans. These include manufacturing and using tools, solving problems, and planning for future needs. Now, Griffin, an African Grey parrot, has proved that birds may even possess better visual memories than human adults and children.

The study, led by Hrag Pailian, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, had the parrot compete in the shell game against twenty-one undergraduate students and twenty-one 6-to 8-year-old children. For those not familiar, the popular challenge involves hiding a small object under one of three, or more, inverted cups or nutshells, which are moved around. Participants are required to accurately identify the cup or nutshell under which the object lies.

The researchers found that Griffin was able to outperform humans while playing the classic shell game (Credit: Harvard University)

The Harvard team began by placing different-colored pom-poms under four cups and shuffling them around. To make the task more challenging, the researchers required participants to track two, three, and four pom-poms simultaneously. The cup positions were moved between zero to four times for each of the combinations. Griffin and the undergraduate students conducted 120 tests, while the children did 36.

An analysis of the results showed that Griffin outperformed the 6-to 8-year-olds across all levels on average. Even more impressive, the "bird brain" performed as well as, or slightly better than, the 21 Harvard students on 12 of the 14 trials! It was only in the final two tests, which had the most pom-poms and most movement, that the parrot lagged behind the adults. However, Griffin's performance never dipped below that of the children. "Think about it: Grey parrot outperforms Harvard undergrads. That's pretty awesome," said a delighted Pailian.

The researchers are not sure what caused Griffin's decreased performance but speculate it may have to do with the way human intelligence works. The fun experiment was part of a study published in Scientific Reports in May 2020. It was conducted to test the brain's ability to retain memories of things that are no longer in view and then update them when faced with new information, like a change in location. The cognitive system, known as visual working memory, is one of the foundations for intelligent behavior.

Griffin was the candidate of choice because the scientists needed an animal that was evolutionarily different for comparison but had a brain functionality similar to that of humans. The fact that the smart parrot loves to show off his brain power, in exchange for a few cashews, did not hurt either. "He's the kind of student who asks you, 'What do I have to do to get the A?' and then goes and does it," said study-co-author Dr. Irene Pepperberg. The Harvard lecturer, who has trained Griffin and several other African Grey parrots, has been studying the species for over four decades and is considered a pioneer in the study of avian intelligence.