What bird has the best memory?

Birds have excellent memories that help them thrive in their environments. But which species has the overall best memory? To answer this question, we need to look at how different types of memory are useful to birds and how they have evolved remarkably strong memory abilities.

Spatial Memory

Many birds rely heavily on spatial memory for things like food caching, migration, and nesting. Food caching birds like jays and nutcrackers cache thousands of seeds and nuts every season and rely on spatial memory to recover them months later. Nutcrackers can remember cache locations up to 9 months later with an accuracy of about 90%.

Migratory birds also have incredible spatial memories. They can remember locations thousands of miles away and navigate back to the same nesting grounds year after year. The champion migrant, the Arctic tern, flies over 25,000 miles annually between Arctic breeding grounds and Antarctic wintering areas.

When it comes to nesting, birds choose sites and build nests from memory. Many species return to the same nesting site every year, even after migrating thousands of miles. The wandering albatross flies across whole oceans to return to its lifelong mate and nest site after years away.

Food Caching Birds

Food caching birds like nutcrackers, jays, and tits may have the best spatial memory of all birds. They rely on caches of thousands of seeds and nuts to survive harsh winters. Nutcrackers bury up to 30,000 caches per season and can remember cache locations up to 9 months later with about 90% accuracy.

Clark’s nutcrackers bury up to 33,000 seeds in thousands of locations across 15 square miles of forest. An experiment showed a nutcracker could remember cache locations for 285 days with about 90% accuracy. Their spatial memory allows efficient recovery of caches and survival through winter.

Migratory Birds

Migratory birds also have remarkable spatial memories. They memorize locations across continents between breeding and wintering grounds. The champion migrant Arctic tern flies a whopping 25,000 miles annually between opposite ends of the planet.

Some migratory feats require especially good spatial memory. Bar-tailed godwits make the longest non-stop migratory flight recorded, flying over 7,000 miles from Alaska to New Zealand. They return to within 155 miles of the previous year’s wintering site, displaying impressive navigational memory.

White-crowned sparrows memorize song types unique to their wintering and breeding sites as a guidepost for migration between sites 2,000 miles apart. This allows them to navigate to the correct location by memory.

Nesting Birds

Many birds memorize locations for nest sites that they reuse year after year. Even migrant birds traveling thousands of miles return from year to year to the same nesting site after their incredible journeys. The wandering albatross mates for life and flies enormous distances across the Southern Ocean to return to its mate and nest site annually.

Other birds also display strong site fidelity. Bald eagles often rebuild nests in the same tree, with some nests growing to over 9 feet deep after repeated use and expansion over years. Owls nest in cavities that may be reused for decades by subsequent generations if not disturbed.

Nest reuse relies on spatial memory to return to the precise location year after year, even for non-migratory species like eagles and owls. This memory allows reuse of quality sites and reuniting of mates season after season.

Observational Memory

In addition to spatial memory for navigation, birds excel at observational memory for things like food locations, predators, social interactions, and mating displays. This ability allows them to survive and thrive in varied and sometimes harsh environments.

Food Locations

Many birds memorize locations of good feeding spots. Black-capped chickadees remember feeder locations best if the feeder is most consistent and contains their preferred seeds. Flock members also observe each other to learn new food sources.

Hummingbirds memorize the location, regeneration times, and nectar content of favored flower patches. They circuit feed to maximize efficiency. Some hummingbirds also remember which individual flowers they have recently emptied at a patch and avoid them.

In frugivorous birds like the green-backed heron, individuals memorize fruiting tree locations across a territory of over a square mile. This allows efficient foraging on ripe fruits across seasons.


Memorizing dangerous predators is essential to survival for prey species. Black-capped chickadees teach their young special alarm calls associated with different predator types just several weeks after hatching. The fine detail in these alarms calls reflects complex auditory memory.

Certain birds also remember and respond aggressively to specific individual predators that previously attacked them or their nest. Crows and jays mob or dive bomb hawks, owls, and other enemies that threatened them in the past as a defense mechanism.

Some migrations are timed based on memory of seasonal predation pressure. The bobolink times its migration to avoid returning to breeding grounds too early when hawks are still present before migrating north.

Social Interactions

Complex social birds remember intricate details about other individuals in their flocks and communities. Ravens remember other specific ravens that have tricked or cheated them in the past and avoid those individuals in future interactions.

Parrots and corvids can memorize large numbers of individuals in their flocks, their dominance hierarchies, and behaviors when forming social alliances. Macaws and parrots may form monogamous bonds that last for decades, reflecting strong individual recognition memory.

Some songbirds even remember social interactions when migrating hundreds or thousands of miles to their wintering grounds. They re-establish flocks and dominance hierarchies from past years through memory of specific individuals.

Mating Displays

Birds that perform elaborate mating displays must memorize complex moves, calls, and rituals. Lekking birds like grouse and birds of paradise converge to display courts where males compete for mates. Successful males memorize the finest details of dances, sounds, and behaviors.

Individual male lyrebirds perform over a dozen different mimetic song types in meticulous sequence as a memorized display. Bowerbirds memorize the ideal structural design and arrangement of their bowers to impress visiting females.

Even non-lekking songbirds memorize regional dialect songs to appeal to local females. White-crowned sparrows learn a specific dialect song as juveniles to perform when breeding the following year.

Auditory Memory and Learning

In addition to strong memory across many contexts, birds have superior auditory memory that supports learning complex sounds used for communication. Many birds learn regional “dialect” songs as juveniles and retain them into adulthood for reproduction and flock cohesion.

Song Learning

Young songbirds memorize adult songs heard during a developmental critical period. They store the memory of these shared songs to guide their own vocalizations the next breeding season. White-crowned sparrows memorize a regional dialect song as juveniles and retain it accurately the following year.

Species exposed to the most song tutors tend to have the largest song repertoires. The brown thrasher has an incredible repertoire of over 1,100 song types learned from mimicking other species. More limited learners like chipping sparrows learn only 1-5 simple song types from memory.

Some birds memorize songs across generations through cultural transmission. Winter wrens learn elaborate 25 second songs with over 100 notes, among the most complex songs retained and transmitted through generations.


Parrots, lyrebirds, and some other exceptional mimics memorize and convincingly reproduce almost any sound they hear. Lyrebirds incorporate chains of mimicked vocalizations from up to 20 other species into their elaborate vocal displays to attract mates.

Some parrots like the African grey parrot can mimic human speech with extensive training. They memorize and contextualize large vocabularies of spoken words and phrases with meaning, indicating advanced cognitive ability.

Mimicry requires accurately memorizing complex auditory inputs from the environment. The greater a species’ mimicry repertoire, the stronger its auditory memory typically is.

Call Recognition

Many social birds use various contact calls and can recognize other individuals by call alone. Pygmy marmosets are one of the most skilled, able to distinguish up to 15 different individual family members in their group based on highly variable contact calls.

Some birds also respond appropriately to different alarm calls signaling specific threats like predators. For example, chickadees have specialized alarm calls for raptors versus snakes that elicit different evasive reactions from others that hear them.

Recognizing complex sounds as signatures of individual group members or classes of threats requires specialized neural architecture and auditory scene analysis not found in other animal groups.

Memory Duration in Birds

Some birds appear to have exceptionally long memory duration for learned information that lasts years or even lifetimes in the case of migratory site fidelity. However, putting an exact duration on avian memory is difficult.

Migration and Cache Recovery

Migratory birds clearly retain memories of breeding and wintering sites lasting at least a full year from use. Experiments with hand-reared migratory birds like indigo buntings show they can return to the same breeding and wintering grounds when migrate alone for the first time years later.

Food caching birds recover caches up to 9 months later under snow in approximate cache order, demonstrating incredible long-term spatial memory. Nutcrackers seem to have lifelong memories of cache sites that persist each year.

Song Learning

Most songbirds have an early critical period for learning songs ranging from a few months to a year which they retain for life. Some augment learned songs annually but core song memory lasts at least a full year between breeding seasons or more.

Hand raised songbirds isolated from adult songs invent abnormal songs. But they can rapidly learn regional dialect songs when exposed to tutors the next year, retaining them long term. This shows the neural song template persists.


While some avian memory clearly persists at least a year, putting an exact duration is difficult. Testing memory retention over very long periods would require hand raising birds in controlled conditions for years. This poses ethical concerns and logistical difficulties.

There is also no straightforward way to isolate and specifically test the duration of specific memory types in birds. Retention intervals in most behavioral studies are limited to what is practical for the specific research question.

Overall conclusions about avian memory duration are thus limited. But it is clear from behaviors like lifelong migration site fidelity that critical spatial memories can persist for many years or life.

Best Overall Avian Memory

Based on their superior performance across diverse memory tasks, the top performers are likely food caching birds like nutcrackers, tits, and jays. Corvids like ravens and crows also perform very well across memory domains.

Spatial and Observational Memory

Food caching birds rely on spatial memory to recover thousands of caches for survival. Nutcrackers recall cache locations up to 9 months later with 90% accuracy. Their spatial memory likely persists for multiple years.

These birds also remember observational details like cache pilferers, social interactions, and variable food locations. Their memory across contexts is exceptional.

Auditory Memory and Learning

While songbirds and parrots excel at song learning and mimicry, caching birds also hear and memorize auditory cues in observational contexts like recognizing territorial intruders, identity of flock members, and threats.

Nutcrackers recognize different alarm and chatter calls and can distinguish individual voices. Their auditory memory may aid observational spatial memory.

Reasoning and Behavioral Flexibility

Corvids like ravens display highly flexible behaviors like tool use along with social reasoning and problem solving that require integrated memory. Their cognitive abilities approach primates in some aspects.

Among birds, corvids and parrots have the largest relative brain sizes, which likely supports memory integration. However, their spatial memory is surpassed by specialized caching birds.


Overall, the title of best avian memory likely goes to food caching corvids like Clark’s nutcracker. Nutcrackers rely on memory the most heavily across a wide range of natural behaviors. Their spatial memory duration, accuracy, and volume in cache recovery is unmatched.

Nutcrackers remember cache locations up to 9 months and likely for multiple years with about 90% accuracy. Their spatial memory persistence is incredible. They also use memory flexibly across contexts like observational cues, threat recognition, and social interactions.

Runner up awards go to migratory birds for their navigational memory and songbirds for their auditory learning abilities. But no avian memory seems as specialized, durable, and flexible as that of the caching corvids.

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