Ravens and crows, part of the Corvidae family, are not only able to solve complex puzzles and perform crime scene investigation work on avian corpses, but they remember liars and know what thieves are thinking. As a new study reveals, the New Zealand kaka, part of the Nestoridae family, could theoretically give these intellectual birds a run for their money.
These medium-sized forest-dwelling birds, whose name in the Maori language literally means “parrot,” are not just excellent problem solvers too, but their more youthful members are better at completing conundrums than their elders. As reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, these findings suggest that, in the face of unrelenting man-made climate change, the young shall inherit the skies of a rapidly changing environment full of new challenges.
“Juvenile birds are frequently more… explorative [than their older counterparts], yet few studies have found evidence of age-related differences in innovative problem-solving success,” the authors write in their study. “Here, we show consistently higher innovation efficiency in juveniles of a wild, omnivorous parrot species across a variety of tasks and contexts.”
Kaka can sometimes be found hiding in Fiordland National Park. rawpixel.com/Shutterstock
These rather visually striking birds are registered as endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. Climate change, the proliferation of predators and habitat destruction have been driving them towards extinction, but various breeding programs have successfully increased their population numbers over the last 12 years.
In order to investigate their potential adaptability to changing environmental conditions, a trio of researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand conducted three different experiments on 104 kaka, a group which included both old and young birds, at the spacious and viridian Zealandia Sanctuary on the nation’s North Island. Each test was designed to specifically assess the ability of the kaka to think its way through problems it would have not evolved to naturally solve in order to survive.
The first test involved hiding a feeding station behind a treadle, a device that moves if a pedal is repeatedly compressed. No kaka over the age of 3 years were able to solve this problem, whereas 40 percent of those under 3 years of age were able to reach the feeder.
The second test involved another feeder station mystery; this time, it could be accessed by going around the back and flipping open the lid manually. Just one single adult managed to accomplish this, as opposed to around 50 percent of the younger birds.
In the final experiment, single cashew nuts were attached to individual pieces of string tied to tree branches. To get the nuts, the kaka had to draw them in, very carefully, using the string as a sort of fishing rope. Every single younger bird was able to master this task, whereas just half of the adults managed the same feat.
A pair of North Island Kaka at Auckland Zoo in New Zealand. Small/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 2.0
The younger birds were clearly not just more neophilic – meaning they were interested in novelty and new concepts and situations – but they persisted in their exploratory activities far longer than their adult companions. In short, they were more curious, and this curiosity may help them to discover and develop efficient foraging techniques that are then maintained through adulthood.
This would give them an evolutionary advantage over their peers, which would almost certainly lead to them producing more adaptable offspring. In a world threatened by environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale, this can only be a good thing if they hope to survive well into the future.