AboutZoos, Since 2008


Grey par­rots use rea­son­ing where mon­keys and dogs can’t

pub­lished 15 August 2012 | mod­i­fied 15 August 2012

Research sug­gest­ing that grey par­rots (Psit­ta­cus eritha­cus) can rea­son about cause and effect from audio cues alone– a skill that mon­keys and dogs lack– is pre­sented in Pro­ceed­ings of the Royal Soci­ety B of August 8, 2012.

Grey parrotChris­t­ian Schloegl and his team at the Uni­ver­sity of Vienna, let six par­rots choose between two con­tain­ers, one con­tain­ing a nut. Both con­tain­ers were shaken, one elic­it­ing a rat­tling sound and the other noth­ing. The par­rots pre­ferred the con­tainer that rat­tled, even if only the empty con­tainer was shaken. When the par­rots were played a recorded noise, but the con­tainer was not shaken, they did not choose it. This sug­gests that grey par­rots under­stand the causal link between nut, shak­ing and noise, which is oth­er­wise only mas­tered by great apes, but not by mon­keys or dogs.

More impor­tantly, they also use the absence of noise dur­ing the shak­ing of the empty con­tainer to infer that this con­tainer does not con­tain a nut. This cor­rect con­clu­sion, from only one con­tainer being shaken, sug­gests that the par­rots are mak­ing a two-​step deduc­tion. First, the pres­ence and absence of noise has to be con­nected to the pres­ence or absence of the reward, respec­tively. This infor­ma­tion must then be used to deduce that the absence of noise in one con­tainer is pre­dict­ing the pres­ence of the reward in the other container.

So how do par­rots com­pare to other ani­mals? In this task, only three-​year-​old human chil­dren and the great apes were instan­ta­neously suc­cess­ful and man­aged to use the absence of noise to infer that the reward is located in the alter­na­tive con­tainer. Dogs, mon­keys and baboons are unable to make this inference.

Sur­pris­ingly, the per­for­mance of the birds was sen­si­tive to the shak­ing move­ment: they were suc­cess­ful with con­tain­ers shaken hor­i­zon­tally, but not with ver­ti­cal shak­ing resem­bling par­rot head-​bobbing. Thus, grey par­rots seem to pos­sess ape-​like rea­son­ing skills, but their reliance on these abil­i­ties is influ­enced by low-​level interferences.

(Source: The Royal Soci­ety Press Release, 08.08.2012)

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