Playful birds are smart birds, study finds

By Nikki Addison

Playful birds are smart birds, study finds
Keas and crows that play with objects learn to use them as tools.

Researchers from the University of York have found that kea parrots and New Caledonian crows can learn how to use objects by playing with them. In a similar way to how human babies gather information through play, the birds were discovered to achieve tasks in an efficient manner when they had examined the related object previously.

Scientists determined that the two birds shared a higher task success rate after interacting with the objects, despite the species typically dealing with items differently. “Both species of bird are known for exploring objects in different ways,” says the University of York’s Dr Katie Slocombe. “The New Caledonian crow use objects in the wild and the kea parrot is known for often being destructive in its play back in its native New Zealand.”

Ropes, weights, patterns and coloured blocks were given to the birds to examine, before they were presented with a basic task using the items.

“We found that both species were better at selecting the correct tools to solve a task if they had the opportunity to explore them beforehand, suggesting that they were learning something about the properties of them as they interacted with them,” Slocombe says. 

It is hoped that other bird species will reveal more information about the connection between play and problem solving. “This type of ‘latent learning’, which occurs without any reinforcement, is thought to be particularly important for animals to be able to use objects as tools in a variety of contexts for creative problem-solving,” says the University of York’s PhD student Megan Lambert. “The birds did not appear to explicitly seek information about the objects, but rather learned about their properties incidentally through exploring them.”

The research is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.



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