For the most part, people tend to pay attention to a bird’s intelligence only when the bird is very smart. But what about dumb birds? You’ve heard that the ostrich putting its head in the sand is an idiom for avoiding a problem. We do say “bird-brain” as an insult, but it’s not about a specific species. Let’s learn more about the dumbest birds around the world in looks and behavior, and why they seem to rank so low on the IQ scale.
10. Secretary Bird
The secretary bird is from Africa where it makes its home in savannahs. They look like one of the least intelligent birds because of their appearance. With a head that looks like an eagle’s head and legs that look like a stork’s legs, they are deceptively deadly to predators.
They have a dangerous defensive mechanism with their long, quick, powerful legs and sharp, clawed toes that can deliver a force of 36.5 lbs in 15ms from the birds which weigh around 7.3 lbs. This ninja-like self-defense ability makes it difficult for venomous snakes to bite them before the snakes die from being stomped to death.
9. Northern Fulmar
The parents of northern fulmar chicks seem like some of the dumbest birds. The female northern fulmar only returns to land to build a nest high on rocky ledges over the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans, lay a single egg, and feed its flightless young.
However, the chicks aren’t completely weak or defenseless. They have a part of their stomach called the proventriculus which stores rancid oil. If a predator comes too close or threatens them, they projectile vomit this oil which negatively affects the predator’s ability to hunt in the future. Predatory birds can’t fly after being vomited on, while foxes and other mammals get it in the face.
We’ve heard many times someone being described as sticking their heads in the sand, like an ostrich. It’s an idiom about avoiding a problem. In reality, we think that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when predators are nearby because that’s all we can see from a distance. What’s going on is that the ostrich is likely a female using her beak to turn her clutch of eggs, and if she needs to escape from predators, she can run up to 45 mph.
There are more tangible reasons why we think of the ostrich as one of the least intelligent birds around, though. They have oversized eyes and undersized brains. We commonly believe that brain size should increase in proportion to the size of the animal to maintain and increase intelligence, and the ostrich has an overly small brain.
Turkeys aren’t one of the least dumb birds so much as the most confused. They have monocular vision, which means their eyes are on either side of their heads and they see different things from each eye. While doing so, they may cock their heads to one side.
But that’s not the strange part. When it rains, they stand open-mouthed and try to drink the rainwater, which they only drink when it’s falling from above them, and they end up dying. The turkeys that engage in this behavior are affected by a genetic neurological condition called Tetanic Torticollar Spasms, and it was first reported from a line of Medium White turkeys.
The emu has the reputation of being one of the least intelligent birds among a few emu experts, including a Canadian scientist and a former emu breeder. They aren’t as bright as crows but are more so than turkeys, and yet they can be easily fooled. A human being threatened by an emu attack only has to hold a stick above their head to appear bigger.
Some may argue their flightless wings also label them unintelligent. Why have wings if they can’t fly? Emu’s wings, however, help them in other ways. They live in Australia, which tends to be very hot. The emu will use its wings to cool off, extending them out to allow air around their bodies. Their wings also help them run faster by steering them in the right direction.
The cardinal is one of those common, everyday birds we notice but doesn’t think much of besides the colorful red feathers of the males. If you have cardinals flying at your home, you might think less of them. These birds fly into glass windows and sliding doors.
If you think it should be easy to learn after the first time, you’d be right, and other birds do so. Not this one! This bird is determined to go places it simply cannot, and for this reason, it’s one of the dumbest birds in the world.
Killdeers are the walking billboards of the prey animals. Their call is a shrill scream. If that wasn’t enough, they don’t have a flight instinct like other animals do. What they do with predators instead is stand while bobbing up and down. Plus, they build their nests on the ground.
But that’s not all! It manages to compensate somewhat with its protective behavior towards its young. When a predator is near the nest, the killdeer runs towards the predator screaming and pretends to have a broken wing. This leads the predator to believe it’s got a fast, easy meal until the killdeer suddenly flies away back to the nest.
3. Lilac-Breasted Roller
The lilac-breasted roller is the national bird of Kenya. Although it looks incredibly beautiful, it engages in behavior that makes it one of the dumbest birds in the world. For one thing, it builds its nest in nearly impossibly high places. It also gets killed by poachers and hunters because it stays in one place instead of running away.
2. Red-Necked Phalarope
The red-necked phalarope is native to Britain. While other phalaropes winter in the Arabian Sea after traveling from Scandinavia and Russia, this species has the second-largest migratory route in the world. About the size of a sparrow, this little bird is at home on the open sea, although it has a high percentage of mortality during the journey.
Feeding on plankton in the Atlantic Ocean, it arrives in Canada, goes down to the Caribbean, and stops at Ecuador and Peru. You would think birds wouldn’t travel to the west because of how difficult it is to cross the Atlantic Ocean, but that would take at least an average bird’s brain.
This exotic-sounding parrot owl from New Zealand eats on the ground, and its diet includes berries that grow just once every four years. It has a high mortality rate in the presence of predators. Rather than running away per the flight instinct, the kakapo freezes in one spot. The flightless bird that looks like an owl is surprisingly a parrot.
The males have a loud, disturbing mating call that confuses the females to the point where combined with human predators, there are now less than 200 left in the world. The dumbest living bird in the world must be the kakapo who, like the dodo, had no natural predators or threats on its population until humans arrived.