Prudent Parrots Delay Taking Food to Get More in the Future

A set of creative experiments shows these bright birds are shrewd economists.

Posted Sep 08, 2018

"Tests involving four species of parrot have found that these birds are capable of making complex economic decisions."

I'm always keen to share new research with readers, and this past week I learned that a set of very creative experiments shows that macaws are shrewd economists who learn to wait to take food if they know more is coming later on. Popular accounts of a recent research essay by Dr. Anastasia Krasheninnikova, of the Max-Planck-Institut for Ornithologie, and her colleagues titled "Economic Decision-Making in Parrots" have discovered that these bright birds are shrewd economists. This research paper is available for free online, so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more.

What makes the study of Dr. Krasheninnikova's study so important and novel is that no previous studies of birds have tested decision-making using token exchange methodology. The researchers studied 36 hand-raised parrots, 33 of whom completed all of the experiments. The birds represented four parrot species in the family Psittacidae and housed at the Max-Planck Comparative Cognition Research Station in Puerto de la Cruz, in Tenerife, Spain.

In a series of crafty experiments, individual birds had to choose between a food reward or a token that was immediately available that could then be exchanged for the same or another food reward later on. The researchers write, "We tested the parrots in the conditions implemented by the previous primate studies but also applied additional test and control conditions. In three conditions the subject could increase its payoff by choosing the token over the immediately available food, whereas in one condition, choosing the token led to a lower payoff than choosing the food. Finally, two conditions presented a situation where there was no difference between the immediate and the future gain, so that the most economic decision was to consume the food immediately." These can be summarized as follows: Condition 1 Low Token→ Low Food versus High Token = LT (LF vs HT); Condition 2 Medium Token→ Medium Food versus High Token = MT (MF vs HT); Condition 3 Low Token→ Low Food versus Medium Token = LT (LF vs MT); Condition 4 Medium Token→ Medium Food versus Low Token = MT (MF vs LT); Condition 5 Medium Token→ Medium Food versus Medium Token = MT (MF vs MT); and Condition 6 High Token → High Food versus High Token = HT (HF vs HT). 

The overall results of this study can be seen in this graph.

Open access
Proportion of individuals per species that selected the item (token or food) that yielded maximum payoff in six test conditions.
Source: Open access

Some parrots do as well or better than nonhuman primates in cognitive challenging situations requiring them to delay gratification

All in all, the researchers learned that similar to some primates, parrots representing all four species "selectively chose tokens associated with more preferred foods first, handing the provided tokens back in a predictable order according to preference." And, parrots of the larger macaw species actually did as well or better than primates who have been studied in similar experiments. Furthermore, "When provided with a choice between a food or a token that could be exchanged for more preferred food, all four species inhibited their impulsive reactions and selected the token significantly more often than chance, thus maximising their payoff. They did so regardless of the value of the immediate gain." Individuals representing great green macaws did the best of all of the species studied in that all of them "performed significantly above chance throughout all six test conditions, suggesting that they successfully weighed up between the two options to make the most advantageous choice."

It's interesting to ask about the ecological relevance of this study and how the results reflect what parrots have to do in the wild. Dr. Auguste von Bayern who leads this research team notes: "Given that wild parrots are so difficult to track, to date we know little about the ecological challenges most parrots encounter in their habitats in the wild, such as deciding where to go and how long to stay in a given feeding site. However...they are capable of making surprisingly subtle decisions so as to maximise their pay-off while minimising their effort. This is a fascinating indication that such decisions may matter greatly in their natural environment." So, these captive birds show that their wild relatives might have to be able to make similar decisions in their natural habitats. 

Please stay tuned for more research on the cognitive skills of the fascinating nonhuman animals with whom we share our magnificent planet. Who would have thought "bird brains" could accomplish the complex cognitive challenges they readily master? Clearly, some birds are capable of displaying skills that have previously been thought to be "uniquely human" or "uniquely primate," and a good deal of research shows that being called a "bird brain" is a compliment rather than an insulting dismissal of being a dullard. 

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