31 Oct 2019

Kākā TV - teaching smart parrots new tricks

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 31 October 2019

A Victoria University of Wellington researcher wonders whether screen time can help kākā learn new skills faster.

Daniel Donoghue next to his 'drop-in' kākā feeding station at Zealandia.

Daniel Donoghue next to his 'drop-in' kākā feeding station at Zealandia. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

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Kaka

Kaka or forest parrot Photo: Julia Loepelt / Victoria University of Wellington

Does playing a video of a kākā solving a feeding puzzle help other kākā learn faster? This experimental set-up is designed to find out.

Does playing a video of a kākā solving a feeding puzzle help other kākā learn faster? This experimental set-up is designed to find out. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

There is a large thriving population of kaka, New Zealand’s native forest parrot, at Zealandia sanctuary in Wellington. And while they may not know it, these wild birds are currently starring in a university study about social learning.

As far as they are concerned they are just taking advantage of a new source of food that has appeared next to their usual feeding station, where sugar water and special kākā pellets are on offer 24/7.

Just three metres away, a new feeding station offers a very desirable sweet drink. The catch? To access the drink, which is in a well too deep for the bird to reach into, the kākā has to solve a small puzzle. It needs to figure out to pull at a small lid which covers a bucket that will lift a serving of drink out of the large well.

To make the challenging job easier, however, there is a handy how-to video playing on a small video screen, showing another kākā successfully carrying out the same task.

The experiment is running at two feeder locations, but the helpful video only plays at one site. At the other, there is a still image in place of moving images.

What PhD student Daniel Donoghue wants to know is whether watching the video helps the birds crack the puzzle faster.

It is early days, and Daniel hasn’t yet looked at all the data and analysed them. But he was willing to speculate a little about trends that he has noticed.

Previous research with kākā at Zealandia by Julia Loepelt had shown that younger birds were more likely than adults to solve problems built into existing feeders.

Initial results

A kākā solves the well and bucket problem. Top, it lifts the lid which pulls up a small bucket containing a sweet drink. Middle, it hooks its foot over the lid to hold it. Bottom, it holds the lid and string while it takes a drink from the bucket.

A kākā solves the well and bucket problem. Top, it lifts the lid which pulls up a small bucket containing a sweet drink. Middle, it hooks its foot over the lid to hold it. Bottom, it holds the lid and string while it takes a drink from the bucket. Photo: Daniel Donoghue / VUW

Initial results from the video experiment, which uses a completely novel feeder, suggests there is no age differences. Daniel suspects that because this a new problem for the birds to solve, both juveniles and adults are open to exploring it and trying new things.

Another trend Daniel is observing is that kākā at the set-up with the video do seem to spend a greater amount of time interacting with the experiment.

“Maybe actually seeing this individual on the screen, doing something and getting food as a result, gives them a little more motivation,” says Daniel.

A full analysis will be completed once Daniel has the results from a full suite of experiments he is running with both kākā and captive kea.

The ‘wild’ factor

Most experiments on social learning and intelligence in birds are carried out with captive birds, and Daniel says it is very different working with wild birds that can come and go, and that can choose whether or not they want to take part in the experiment.

Daniel says that just a few individuals remain very interested in the experiment and stick around making repeat visits. He is not sure why this is. “It might be a personality-based thing, that some individuals are just more curious and are more likely to figure it out,” says Daniel. “Or it might just be that some birds are more inclined to use this area, and it might just be a favoured nap spot.”

More Our Changing World stories on smart animals

Smart kaka – can you teach old parrots new tricks?

When the existing kākā feeders at Zealandia were modified in various ways, young kākā quickly solved the problem and often copied each other, whereas older kākā were ‘stuck’ in their ways and persisted with trying to open the feeders the way they usually did.

Bird brains – measuring the IQ of bush robins

While most IQ experiments with animals take place in a laboratory, Rachel Shaw set out to find if it is possible to carry out experiments with wild animals – and the answer was ‘yes,’ at least when it comes to Zealandia’s bush robins. And spoiler alert – not all robins are equal. There are very bright robins, and there are quite dumb robins.

Clever canines

The Clever Canine Lab at the University of Auckland puts pet dogs to the test to find out just how empathetic and clever they really are

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