Parrots ‘can make predictions based on probabilities’

Parrots have the ability to make decisions based on probabilities, just like humans, researchers have found.

They discovered the kea, a species of large parrot found in New Zealand, can make inferences and predict events based previous knowledge or experience.

They even performed better than chimps in some experiments.

Amalia Bastos, from the University of Auckland, who was lead author on the paper, said: “Kea look very intelligent and they behave very intelligently. I just didn’t expect them to perform quite well as chimpanzees do.”

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>The parrots were trained to associate black tokens with a reward (Amalia Bastos/University of Auckland/PA)</figcaption>
The parrots were trained to associate black tokens with a reward (Amalia Bastos/University of Auckland/PA)

The researchers conducted a series of experiments designed to test understanding of probability in the kea.

They trained six parrots, named Blofeld, Bruce, Loki, Neo, Plankton and Taz, to associate the colour black with a treat and the colour orange with no reward.

Coloured tokens were put in two transparent jars and the birds then saw a researcher take tokens from each jar and hold one in each hand, without being able to see which colour was in which hand.

In almost every instance, the kea chose the hand that appeared most likely to carry a black token.

The researchers then placed a transparent barrier between the jars, making the tokens slightly less accessible.

The kea then selected the jar with the highest probability of black tokens.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>The birds could not see the token in each hand (Amalia Bastos/University of Auckland/PA)</figcaption>
The birds could not see the token in each hand (Amalia Bastos/University of Auckland/PA)

In the final experiment, a researcher created a “bias” scenario by only offering black tokens.

When offered tokens from two experimenters, the parrots showed preference for the researcher who only gave black tokens.

Ms Bastos said: “We were very surprised to find that the kea can use social cues even from humans to make these judgments.”

The team said it is the first time this complex cognitive ability has been demonstrated in an animal outside of the great apes, which could help shed light on the “evolutionary history of statistical inference”.

The team wrote in the paper: “Birds last shared a common ancestor with humans at least 312 million years ago.

“This result provides evidence that true statistical inference is found outside of the great apes, and that aspects of domain general thinking can convergently evolve in brains with a highly different structure from primates.

“This has important implications not only for our understanding of how intelligence evolves, but also for research focused on how to create artificial domain-general thought processes.”

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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Parrots