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Is It Possible to Teach an Old Parrot New Tricks?

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The results of the recent research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London reveal that the behavior of juvenile parrots is more flexible than adults and due to this young birds are better at problem solving and thus are more efficient at discovering new foraging strategies.

The objective of the study was to test the problem-solving abilities of juvenile (less than one year old) parrots and adult birds and compare the results. During the experiment over 100 free-roaming wild kaka parrots that live in New Zealand were tested to confront with three foraging challenges designed by the authors of this study. The study revealed that juvenile parrots turned out to be the best problem-solvers, and adult ones were the worst. This study also found that the young parrots were the most exploratory and showed more persistence when facing a problem than adults. This research proved the idea that juveniles are better at developing behaviors that help them efficiently find food and use other resources in their environment compared to adults. In other words, young parrots are better at developing behavioral innovations.

Behavioral innovations represent behavior patterns that are not typical for a given population, and they are often developed when confronted with a new challenge or represent a way to solve an existing problem. Thanks to behavioral innovations an individual has better survival chances in quickly evolving world, for example, during the economy crisis or other unpredictable situations. In the wild, when a particular animal masters an innovative way to get food, it becomes a more successful forager, and this can result in longer lifespan, or having more offspring, which is vital for the species.

When it comes to human innovators, they are pretty easy to spot— Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. But scientists are curious to find out how to identify who is going to become one of those innovators in a given population. Unfortunately, the answer is not known yet.

Still, scientists have managed to distinguish special attributes typically associated with innovation. They are high exploration rates combined with low levels of neophobia — a fear of something new. When we add particular cognitive abilities like creativity at solving various problems, good memory or the ability to learn quickly they form behaviors vital for survival.

When it comes to wild animals corvids and parrots are considered to be rather smart and this gives them a considerable competitive advantage. And while the behavior of corvids has been the subject of numerous studies, parrots have not been studied well yet.

Among wild parrots the kea, an alpine parrot that lives in New Zealand, is considered one of the most innovative parrots alive. Kea are mischievous, curious and highly destructive. But kaka, handsome medium-sized parrots dwelling in the forests of New Zealand, have not been researched before and their cognitive abilities and personality traits remain unknown. The kaka are good at flying long distances and usually fly around in noisy flocks looking for food and suitable place for nesting. Kaka are omnivorous and feed on various fruits and berries, plants, seeds, buds, and invertebrates. Their brush-tipped tongue is perfect for eating nectar and tree sap, and the birds use their long beak to get the seeds of the Kauri tree, tear bark from trees to reach sap, and dig to access beetle grubs.

A team of researchers from Victoria University of Wellington studied free-roaming kaka that dwell at the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary located near Wellington. Sprawled along 225 hectares, the sanctuary is surrounded by a pest exclusion fence that safely protects the plants and animals living there from invasive species. Currently, there are about 350–400 kaka roaming freely within the sanctuary. These endangered birds are thoroughly monitored by the scientist so the exact age of each parrot is known.

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To test the behavior of the birds the researchers equipped the sanctuary's feeding stations which the parrots use every day with special wood platforms at about 1.8 meters (6 feet) off the ground. The feeders connected to aluminium tread plate feature a lid that opens when a kaka stands on the treadle, providing access to the food.

The results of the experiment showed that young kaka turned out to be more explorative and persistent than adults. Their greater behavioral flexibility and exploratory nature account for their ability to adjust to a number of foraging situations, which is then maintained throughout the life span. Juvenile birds are rather good at developing new ways to deal with novel challenges as they have not got accustomed to particular behavior. The most efficient problem solvers were juvenile kaka less than 10 months old and the older they become the less behavioral flexibility they demonstrated. Kaka over 3 years of age failed to solve the given tasks.

The authors of the study note that adults also can use new food sources, but may have difficulty at adjusting to changes that require using familiar resource in an innovative way.

This research is of great importance as it was conducted in a natural setting. However the data received for kaka may not be true for other parrot species. Kaka habitats are rather stable and are blessed with a variety of different foods while the habitats where kea live don't offer such bounty. Kaka are less playful and are more neophobic than the kea. A curious fact is that adults are better at solving different foraging problems when they are rewarded by a food treat, but the juveniles easily solved a novel string-pulling foraging puzzle. So the scientists have concluded that the differences in the environment where kaka and kea live in impact behavioral flexibility that is maintained throughout the birds' lifetimes.