Polly may want a cracker, but when a parrot wants a better deal, it will trade a so-so nut for an even better snack, a new study has found.
The discovery, published in the journal Biology Letters, demonstrates that birds can do business in their own way, wheeling and dealing with nuts. It also shows that they can exhibit remarkable self restraint, even performing better than some children.
In studies from the 1970s, kids were presented with a marshmallow and were told that they could either eat it now, or wait and receive a second one if they could hold out for a time delay of some minutes. Kids that were able to wait have been more successful now as adults than the other kids (who gulped down the first marshmallow). The ability to strategically wait therefore is very important in the course of human development. Now we can say that it’s important to bird development too.
For the new study, Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna’s Department of Cognitive Biology and colleagues presented an Indonesian cockatoo species, the Goffin’s cockatoo, with food snack options. The best of that bunch, from the bird’s perspective, were pecan nuts.
Mirroring the kid-marshmallow experiment, the researchers next offered the birds an even better deal. If the birds did not eat the pecan, they could trade it for a cashew. (Who knew that cockatoos loved cashews so much? Apparently they are the yummiest nut of all, for at least this particular avian species.)
The birds went for the deal (See related video).
“When exchanging for better qualities, the Goffins acted astonishingly like economic agents, flexibly trading-off between immediate and future benefits,” Auersperg said in a press release. “They did so, relative not only to the length of delay, but also to the difference in trade value between the ‘currency’ and the ‘merchandise’: they tended to trade their initial items more often for their most preferred food, than for one of intermediate preference value and did not exchange in a control test in which the value of the initial item was higher than that of the expected one.”
She continued, “While human infants or primates can hold the initial food in their hands, one should also consider that the birds were able to wait, although they had to hold the food in their beaks, directly against their taste organs while waiting. Imagine placing a cookie directly into a toddler’s mouth and telling him/her, he/she will only receive a piece of chocolate if the cookie is not nibbled for over a minute.”
Aside from revealing how intelligent these birds are, the study also shows that researchers can become very popular with birds if they often feed them tasty nuts.
(Image of a cockatoo trading nuts, Credit: Alice Auersperg; Image of researcher Isabelle Laumer with cockatoos, Credit: Philipp Stöger-Haselböck)