10 Dumbest Birds in the World

Written by Heather Ross
Updated: June 22, 2023
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Key Points:

  • Looks can be deceiving. The secretary bird may look silly with its stork-like legs and eagle head, but it can kill a predator in a flash.
  • The cardinal, ranked number 5 on the list, is deemed unintelligent for its tendency to fly places it shouldn’t, such as into windows and glass doors.
  • Fight or flight? When it comes to the kakapo, neither option will do. It freezes when faced with a predator, leading to its high mortality rate and number 1 ranking on our list of dumbest birds.

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.

The Dodo: The Dumbest Bird Ever?

Stuffed dodo bird, an extinct flightless bird from Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

The dodo bird has a reputation for stupidity.

©The Art of Pics/Shutterstock.com

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The dodo is the name of an extinct species of flightless bird. It lived in the forests on the island of Mauritius. Although it was larger than a wild turkey, it was related to the pigeon. Becoming extinct in the late 17th century, the bird became a symbol of extinction due to the human invasion of its wild, isolated habitat.

The word “dodo” from the world’s supposedly least intelligent bird became a slang English word for an unintelligent person. One of the theories behind its etymology is that it comes from the Portuguese word dodo, which means “fool” or “crazy.” However, the bird in actuality probably had as much intelligence as pigeons and other members of the dove family. It was considered the dumbest bird because we think it didn’t realize it was being killed, but it had no serious threats until humans, and it was impossible to fly away to escape.

Infographic of 10 Dumbest Birds in the World
Kakapo and killdeer birds don’t have a flight instinct like other animals do and will freeze when threatened.

#10. Secretary Bird

The secretary is known as one of the dumbest birds because of their appearance.

©iStock.com/Shumba138

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 female northern fulmar only returns to land to build a nest, lay a single egg, and feed its flightless young.

©iStock.com/Michel VIARD

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. Neither can get it off, so their prey would be able to smell them coming.

#8. Ostrich

Ostriches have undersized brains and oversized eyes that make them look dumb.

©Sergei25/Shutterstock.com

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.

#7. Turkey

Turkeys sometimes die due to standing open-mouthed trying to drink rainwater falling from the sky.

©Matthew Clemente/Shutterstock.com

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.

#6. Emu

To avoid being attacked by an emu, simply hold a stick above your head to look bigger.

©iStock.com/SherryVSmith_Images

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.

#5. Cardinal

Cardinals are known for flying into glass windows and sliding doors.

©iStock.com/ANCHASA MITCHELL

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.

#4. Killdeer

Killdeer do not have a flight instinct like other animals, so it doesn’t fly away when predators approach.

©iStock.com/passion4nature

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

Lilac-breasted rollers build their nests in nearly impossible high places.

©iStock.com/Utopia_88

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 has the second-largest

migratory route in the world.

©iStock.com/phototrip

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.

#1. Kakapo

Rather than fleeing when faced with a threat, the kakapo freezes in one spot.

©Imogen Warren/Shutterstock.com

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.

The Bird-Brain Myth

Where did the bird-brain myth come from with so many birds of average and high intelligence? The problem with quantifying bird intelligence is that we don’t have standardized ways of doing so for all species. What we can do is we’re able to compare the cognitive abilities of different birds based on the tasks they can do.

It is not true that the larger an animal is, the smarter they are. What matters is a proportionate brain-to-body ratio. Intelligent birds that can talk and learn to do tricks, such as parrots, have specialized brain structures that allow them to vocalize and mimic sounds. Those same structures also play a part in body movement.

The dumbest birds in the world have a reputation for being dumb in appearance, behavior, or both. The hierarchy of smart birds puts parrots and predatory birds at the top, several moderately intelligent birds in the middle, and the dumbest birds at the bottom. Some of the dumbest birds have risky behaviors or had no real predators or threats on their population until humans invaded their isolated habitats. As you have seen, looks aren’t everything with regard to intelligence.

Are Dodos Making a Comeback?

There is a company of scientists that plan to attempt to recreate a version of the dodo by editing the genes from its nearest relative, the Nicobar pigeon. They have already successfully sequenced the extinct bird’s genome from ancient DNA. Next, they plan to remove germ cells from an egg of a pigeon, edit the genes to make them more dodo-like, and implant the cells back into a pigeon egg. This method has worked with chickens but has not been tried with other birds. If scientists do create a bird with genes like a dodo, it will have a rough life. It will have to learn how to survive without other members of its species to learn from.

Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) in the forest.

The Nicobar pigeon is the nearest living relative to the extinct dodo.

©iStock.com/Beo88

Summary of the Dumbest Birds in the World

Here’s a recap of the birds we looked at that could be considered dumb in behavior and appearance from a human perspective.

RankBird
1Kakapo
2Red-Necked Phalarope
3Lilac-Breasted Roller
4Killdeer
5Cardinal
6Emu
7Turkey
8Ostrich
9Northern Fulmar
10Secretary Bird

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/TrevorFairbank


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About the Author

Heather Ross is a secondary English teacher and mother of 2 humans, 2 tuxedo cats, and a golden doodle. In between taking the kids to soccer practice and grading papers, she enjoys reading and writing about all the animals!

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