Polly-math Parrots Add Sophisticated Reasoning to Their List of Clever Feats

By Joseph Castro | June 22, 2011 3:54 pm

What’s the News: Parrots are even less bird-brained than previously thought, suggests a new study in the journal Biology Letters. In a series of tests, researchers have learned that some African grey parrots can use logical reasoning to uncover hidden food.

How the Heck:

  • Sandra Mikolasch and her colleagues at the University of Vienna in Austria trained seven African grey parrots to find treats stashed under cups. While the birds watched, Mikolasch placed food under one cup and left an adjacent cup empty—the parrots had to choose the correct cup to get their snacks.
  • After training the birds, Mikolasch hid a seed and a walnut under two separate cups in front of the on-looking parrots. In plain view, she removed one of the treats and allowed the birds to choose cups again. Three of the parrots were able to correctly pick the cup with food at least 70 percent of the time. If the birds were purely guessing, they would have chosen the correct cup roughly half of the time.
  • Mikolasch repeated the experiment with one alteration: she masked her movements behind an opaque screen. She removed one of the treats and showed it to the birds, then had the birds choose cups. By noting which snack was removed, one of the parrots, Awisa, was able to deduce which cup still had food in 23 of the 30 trials (about 77 percent). The other parrots chose more randomly. Mikolasch suspects that Awisa was successful because she’s the parrot equivalent of a “whiz kid.”

What’s the Context:

  • By the age of 4, most children are able to “infer by exclusion.” In one of Mikolasch’s previous experiments, 18 out of 20 4-year-olds were able to complete the parrots’ tasks, Mikolasch told LiveScience.
  • Scientists previously thought that great apes (including humans) were the only animals capable of this type of logical reasoning.
  • The research adds to the growing body of work documenting how smart some bird species are. In 2005, scientists trained a grey parrot to understand the concept of zero, which humans grasp at age 3 or 4. The parrot, Alex, was part of a 30-year project to study parrot intelligence. By the time he died in 2007, Alex had a vocabulary of 150 words, which included base colors and numbers, and could ask for some objects by name (such as “bananas”).
  • More recently, researchers learned that New Caledonian crows, an especially smart species, and kea parrots are able to use tools to solve puzzles.

(via LiveScience)

Image: Flickr/Drew Avery

  • Dust of the stars

    Could they smell the food?

  • John Lerch

    How about the fact that birds can see in the UV. Maybe the cups aren’t so identical when viewed in UV.

  • quarksparrow

    @John: It wouldn’t matter. If the birds need to remember which cup contains which item, then obviously there’s already some way for them to tell the cups apart (whether it’s appearance or position). The point is that they need to remember which cup is empty — or, in the case of the second experiment, logically deduce which cup is empty based on which treat was removed.

  • Calli Arcale

    John — they’d have to look different in a way which revealed their contents fairly consistently. Otherwise, if some cups come out of the plant with randomly more UV-fluorescent dye or whatever, it wouldn’t actually help the parrots guess correctly. They might always favor the shinier one, but since the humans can’t tell any difference, there won’t be any relationship to which treat is in which cup, and they wouldn’t score better than chance.

  • djanes1

    It should be said that the probability of being biased 16 results in one direction after 210 total trials is about 3%. If you only considered Awisa’s 30 trials, the probability is only ~0.2%. I used a random walk expression with Stirling’s approximation to do those estimations.

  • http://N/A k harris

    My Mollucan cockatoo Sugar ( age 30) loves tools and hardware. she has many times had one object… explored it with her very sensitive tongue and gone into another room to find a nut ( bolt type) of the correct size to ease over the other object. I couldn’t do it with the precision she uses. also she and her two African gray friends all use words for actions as well as objects. She has been know to use a new sentence with a combination of words she has from something we say often. And she uses the verbs in the right place…. adjectives usually come at the end like Spanish. I have had her since she was 11 months old and she is a member of the family.

    Smart doesn’t begin to describe what she and her other bird siblings can do.
    I have seen reasoning that astounds me.

  • Susan Brant

    I believe that parrots rely primarily on sight as they have poor senses of smell and taste.

  • Susan Brant

    I believe that parrots rely primarily on sight as they have poor senses of smell and taste. My yellow-nape will not eat anything that is red, no matter what it tastes or smells like. He will try, and usually enjoy, anything else.

  • http://www.parrotparadiseforum.com Kaela

    @Dust of the Stars:

    While parrots have a limited sense of smell, it wouldn’t have helped in this case. They rely almost purely on appearance and/or texture to find foods. Even their sense of taste is limited, though they do use it. I’m assuming this is the reason my conure prefers jalapenos to bell peppers and bananas to strawberries.

  • m

    Well well birds are equivalent to a 4 years old in intelligence. Im still waiting a complete chart that shows the intelligence of all common animals relative to humans on a scale of years or achievements.

  • http://N/A k harris

    mine seem to have a very good sense of smell. their cages are in an upstairs room and yet they know when I am cooking something for them as opposed to regular dinner.

    mine found corn under a napkin. two other napkins were there with bottle caps ynder them. She went unerringly to the one with the kernel of corn.

    lso she seems to be able to count to 3. I read a study that showed crows can keep track of 9 people but not ten! so I of course made up and experiment to see how many coins she could count. 3 was a consistant result.

    this same bird has seen us use tools and will go to the toolbox and get a screwdriver and try to use it to remove the screws from outlets. ( which she can abley do with her beak, but where is the fun in that.)

    Attention spanwise she has a longer one than my sister’s kids at five and seven.

  • http://www.ebook-review.org/Promotion.html home brewing

    finaly I found what I was looking for

    how did you guys found this information??thank you for your blog I found it on Google And I bookmarked it .I like. Please send me updates

    thank you and have a nice day

  • http://bobevanscoupon.net/ mark thomas l bob evans coupons

    can they understand what we are teaching them?

  • Kathi h

    Interesting update on Sugar
    When I feed her something creamy like soup or a little yogurt I use a spoon. the other day I was eating ice cream and she removed my husband’s spoon and brought it to me so I could give her some too! Recognizes tool for what it is for… as long as she benefits in some way.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar