To read Part One of Dot's blog on Parrot intelligence, click here.
For more information on training and behaviour please click here.
When I was at school – many years ago - we were taught that only humans used tools. This dictum has been amply disproved. Here are some examples from wild and captive birds.
The Palm Cockatoo in Australia will strip a twig of its leaves to fashion a drumstick to bang against the nest tree. This is designed to warn off rivals or attract mates.
New Caledonian crows are known to make tools in the wild; this ability is very rarely reported in other bird species. A captive-bred Goffin's cockatoo, Cacatua Goffini)Figaro, has surprised researchers by spontaneously making and using "tools" to reach food, something his species doesn’t do in the wild.
The team in Vienna recorded Figaro - repeatedly breaking off splinters from a wooden beam and using them to reach nuts on the other side of his wire enclosure. "No-one has ever reported [a Parrot] sculpturing a tool out of shapeless wood in order to use it later with great sophistication," said Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University, an author of the study.
The team then carried out a series of tests that involved placing nuts outside the Cockatoo's enclosure and video-recorded the results.
In the first test, Figaro tried unsuccessfully to reach the nut with a stick that was too short. He then bit large splinters from a wooden beam to make his own tool. When they were the right size and shape to use as a "raking" tool, he’d use them to successfully collect the nuts.
Over three days, the research team repeated the exercise in 10 trials. Figaro succeeded each time in making and using tools to retrieve the nut.
"It's almost as if he discovered a solution and then managed to apply it," Prof Kacelnik told BBC Nature. And Figaro taught that tool making strategy to other Goffins in the laboratory
How Parrots adapt to city life
Roelant Jonker, who has been observing city Parrots for over a decade, points out the difficulties of eking out a living in a city, especially in Western Europe or North America.
He says, ‘Parrots need to completely relearn what to eat, as most of the plants and trees they encounter in this alien environment are unknown to them. What fruits are poisonous? Should we trust food set out by people? Which fruits are nutritional enough to get me through a cold winter? What is a winter anyway?’
The odds are stacked against them but still Parrots are among the most successful urban birds in the world. Their adaptive powers might come from their ability to learn from others. It seems that this ability to learn from other birds is key to the successful establishment of Parrots in urban areas.
Parrots are able to interpret the behaviour of other birds in their vicinity and rapidly learn from them how to utilise the environment to their advantage. An observation many Parrot owners will adhere too. You can check out Roelant’s work on his website. (https://cityParrots.org)
Can Parrots think?
For the last fourteen years, Virginia Bush, a retired English instructor, has observed her African Grey Chaucer and found far too many instances of his intelligence in operation to be in any doubt whatsoever that these birds are highly intelligent.
She says, ‘One example is the way Chaucer figured out how to tie knots -- NOT from training by humans, but rather from studying, entirely on his own initiative. I tied knots when I hung toys up for him. Learning to tie knots was his own idea, not mine. When I noticed him watching me intently whenever I was tying knots, I began tying them more slowly, to make it easier for him to observe the process, but that was the extent of my contribution.’
Virginia believes that the most convincing demonstration of his intelligence -- his ability to THINK clearly and independently -- comes from the changes that he makes in the English terms and expressions that he hears her use, when he finds that these do not make perfectly good, logical sense.
She says, ‘One day, when a leak under the kitchen sink turned into a flood, he heard me exclaim "Oh, good grief!" time after time, in intense exasperation. A few hours later, he himself began to say "Oh ... grief!" many times. But he omitted “good".
A little later I heard, "Oh, bad grief!" and a while after that "Oh, awful grief.” He had absolutely never heard anyone use those expressions. Thinking about the phrase he had heard me use, "Oh, good grief", he must have concluded that "good" did not make sense, for the situation in which I had used it.
Entirely on his own, he changed the expression so that it did make good sense. That's clear, logical thinking -- an excellent indication of intelligence.’ I agree with Virginia.
Parrots share some other characteristics with other big-brained animals; they live in groups, they need to cooperate to raise their young. Cognitive scientists working in this area call this quality relationship intelligence.
A 30 year-old New Zealander, Jayden van Horik, has spent many years studying this sort of behaviour in the wild with free living Parrots. Now he is turning his focus to test birds’ abilities in more controlled conditions.
Jayden came to visit my birds to demonstrate what sort of tests he used.
I’m sorry to relate that my beloved pets, Artha and Casper, although they were delighted to try and fiddle with the camera set up on the dining room table, flatly refused to turn up the cup for the treat. I should add that they had breakfasted at 8 am and don’t think that they were particularly hungry as it was then only 11.30 am.
Perdy Cockatoo found Jayden the most attentive and attractive head rubber she’d met for ages; she spent the whole test time snug on his lap. Jayden told me not to be downhearted, as it seemed that the Greys had understood that a treat was hidden but they were not motivated to perform.
Over lunch, shared with Artha, Perdy and Casper, we discussed avian intelligence. The idea of a ‘bird brain’ has had to be substantially revised in light of recent studies. Jayden intends that his work will add to this body of knowledge.
After lunch we tried the hidden treat test again. This time a toy was the reward. Casper decided a Bic pen was something he really wanted. Jayden hid the pen top under a cup and Casper straight away chose the right cup and got his pen. Poor Casper, he had to repeat the action 5 times in a row – which he did. Artha and Perdy simply walked away.
And finally –
What conclusion might we draw from the evidence that Parrots are demonstrably intelligent. For me the message is that if we insist on keeping them as pets and in spite of strong arguments against this, most of us will do so, we need to provide stimulating and enriched environments for their active brains and bodies.
Toys can help you do just that.
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