Vandal Parrot Exhibits Behavior Previously Only Seen In Primates


Rachael Funnell

Digital Content Producer

clockMar 3 2020, 16:00 UTC
Kea parrot on top of Avalanche Peak, New Zealand - Arthurs Pass. Peter Nordbaek Hansen/Shutterstock

Kea parrot on top of Avalanche Peak, New Zealand - Arthurs Pass. Peter Nordbaek Hansen/Shutterstock

Research published in Nature Communications has found that keas can judge statistical odds based on behaviors most likely to win them snacks. This behavior is a level of intelligence previously only observed in primates, further bolstering these parrots as one of the most intelligent species among birds.

As the only alpine parrot in the world, keas are unusual animals. A study in 2018 found that keas were intelligent enough to use tools to disable traps meant for stoats, an invasive species, so they could safely steal the egg lures inside. Over 30 months, they observed 227 traps that had been raided, with some boxes being hurled upside-down while others were sabotaged with sticks. 

Intelligence doesn't equal compassion. Frank Fichtmueller/Shutterstock

In their latest achievement, a group of six captive keas made educated guesses in order to receive treats, according to researchers at the University of Auckland. To test this, the team drew tokens from two jars that had different ratios of black and orange tokens. Black tokens earned the birds an edible reward, meaning jars with a greater number of black tokens gave the keas a better chance of receiving a treat.

Once they picked up on this, the birds consistently chose the hand that was drawing the highest number of black tokens from the jar. This behavior didn’t result in success 100 percent of the time, but it showed the parrots could assess where their bets were best placed in pursuit of a black token. This informed decision making demonstrates the parrot’s ability to make predictions based on statistical information, and it’s the first time this type of behavior has been observed in birds.

The researchers then decided to explore if the keas could combine other sources of knowledge into their predictions about uncertain events. The birds were presented with two jars of partially concealed tokens so that only the top tokens could be seen. Both jars actually had the same quantity of black and orange tokens, but the birds still chose from the jar that had a greater number of black tokens visible at the top. Researchers believe this suggests the birds were able to combine information about the physical world (the barrier obscuring the middle of the jar) with information about the relative frequency of tokens. This behavior has so far only been observed in human children.

Kea in flight. Lost In Time/Shutterstock

The final test involved two researchers selecting tokens in different ways. One researcher always took black tokens from the jar even though there were visibly more orange tokens than black tokens. The other researcher grabbed tokens randomly from a jar with more black tokens than orange. After watching both researchers selecting tokens from jars with the same ratio of black to orange, they consistently chose the researcher who showed a bias for black tokens. This incredible ability to integrate social observations with statistical outcomes has only been seen in humans and chimpanzees.


“The results from the study are surprising as they mirror those from infants and chimpanzees in similar tests,” PhD candidate Amalia Bastos said of the study in a statement. “They show kea can look at the ratio of objects to make a prediction about uncertain events – what we call statistical inference. That kea could then integrate different types of information into these predictions was really unexpected: this type of integration has been thought to require language. This is the first evidence that a bird can make true statistical inferences and integrate different types of information into their predictions of uncertain events.”

The findings don’t just influence our understanding of the animal kingdom either. The team believe that combining existing AI technologies inspired by mammalian brains with mechanisms based on avian brains could be the key to creating AI that make more domain-general, common-sense judgements. I for one welcome our robot birdman overlords.

Find out why New Zealand decided to build bird gyms for keas