An unusual study involving tongue-wagging birds, balls, and touchscreens has determined that kea parrots aren’t able to decipher between virtual and real-world environments. After teaching the parrots to use touch screens with their tongues (wild that this isn’t even the crux of the research), they set them to a series of tasks in working out where a ball had gone. As the researchers switched between virtual and real-life props the birds appeared none the wiser.
Published in the journal Biology Letters, the new study is a demonstration of how keas view digital and real-world environments, seeing them as continuous and equivalent while other species (namely us) can tell the two apart. Existing research proves that this sets keas apart from 19-month-old human babies (ignoring the whole feathers and beak thing), as babies don’t appear to perceive virtual environments to spill into real life as the parrots do.
The team doing the research gathered a group of keas from the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve and put them to work on touch screens. The multifaceted tongue of the kea was demonstrated in another pressing news story this year about a bird named Bruce who had learned to live without a beak by manipulating tools with his tongue and lower mandible. Thankfully, the famous kea tongue was once again up to the task.
“A parrot’s beak is a lot like your fingernail: it won’t activate a touchscreen,” said study author Patrick Wood in a statement. “So, we had to teach them to lick the screen with their tongues. Once they acquired this skill, they quickly gained confidence using the touchscreens and they really seem to enjoy it, too.”
The next step involved challenging them to follow a ball’s journey on a real-life seesaw, then identifying which box the ball had fallen into. In real life, they did this by indicating with their beaks which box the ball was in.
This same puzzle then evolved to include a virtual seesaw instead of a real one, and the parrots selected the box they believed the ball to be in by tapping it on the screen with their tongue. Next came a combination, as the birds were faced with a virtual seesaw that ended with real boxes to choose from.
The goal was to test if the keas perceived physical events taking place in a virtual environment to spill into the real world, thinking that the ball on screen had migrated and was now in the box in front of them. The results showed that yes, they did, as the parrots would tap the box that the on-screen puzzle had led them to. The fact they view the virtual and real world in this way could have applications to further behavior studies with these animals, the researchers say.
“Our study validates the use of virtual reality and tasks blending the real and virtual worlds for use with this species,” said lead author on the paper Amalia Bastos in a statement. “This potentially has implications for other parrot species as well.”
However, charming though it may be, the tablet-wielding-parrot study isn’t without its limitations in assuming its suitability as a research tool long-term.
“Further work is needed to determine whether kea with extensive experience of screens might begin to dissociate the real and virtual worlds, and what types of experiences might shift their understanding of screens closer to that of human infants,” Bastos explained.