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


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