Humans are animals. We’re apes. We’re highly sophisticated, yes. But we’re just apes. I think people often forget that and end up placing homo sapiens sapiens on a pedestal. OK, so there are the great apes. They’re pretty close. But surely no non-primate animal could possibly exhibit human-like abilities. As it turns out, an animal people previously considered pretty dumb are showing signs of being pretty smart.
We’ve known that grey parrots were quite smart for some time now. We know that these birds have impressive counting abilities and verbal prowess. Now a recent study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that grey parrots have the reasoning abilities of a three-year-old human.
This is something hinted at previously, but this study attempted to address criticisms. According to Smithsonian.com:
In several previous experiments, researchers claimed they’d revealed the ability of parrots to make inferences based on their skill in completing an extremely simple task. The animals were shown a pair of closed canisters, one with food inside and one empty, and the top of the empty one was briefly opened. Afterward, when they were given the chance to choose one or the other, they reliably selected the one with food. Critics, though, said that this didn’t necessarily demonstrate any sort of inferential reasoning—they could simply be avoiding the empty canister, rather than realizing its emptiness implied there was food in the other.
This time, however, the researchers didn’t open the can. They shook the can so the parrots could hear the food (walnuts, in this case) or not. This alone would be open to the same criticisms as the previous experiments. That’s why the researchers did something a bit different:
To confirm that the parrots were actually making inferences about the location of food, and not merely avoiding a silent box, the researchers introduced one more variation to the task. Instead of using the actual canisters to make the noises, they wore small speakers on their wrists that emitted shaking noises. In some cases, they shook the box in their right hand, but emitted the shaking noises from a speaker on their left wrist; in other cases, they played the sounds from the correct side. The parrots only made the right selection on a consistent basis when the sound lined up with the shaking—so they were making an inference not based on a visual or aural cue alone, but from noting the connection between both.
Whoa! Do you know what this means? A bird can show abstract, inferential thinking. No other non-primate species has demonstrated this ability. Not only that, but humans are incapable — incapable! — of this kind of reasoning before the age of three. This bird is smarter than your baby!
Grey parrots, of course, aren’t the only super smart avians. Crows can use tools and recognize your face, for crying out loud! I guess the next time someone calls me a bird brain I’ll take it as a compliment.
Image credit: Papooga
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