Those all-knowing eyes! I was completely captivated by this lovely youngster - she's as bright as a button and so curious about the world. She became "Professor Polly", and she reminds me so much of a super-smart friend who became one of youngest female professors in NZ's history (who coincidentally has a daughter named Polly!).
I have long been fascinated with bird intelligence and cognition. Study after study are now showing that birds are incredibly intelligent - just this week there was news about tool-use seen in kea (the kākā's cousin) in the wild. Long gone are the days when scientists thought that tiny brains relative to body size meant tiny abilities. Birds have vastly more dense innervation allowing smarts to be packed in much more tightly than human brains. And parrots and corvids are some of the brightest.
Researchers are quite taken by the kākā as a study subject. They're cousins of the kea, who are thought to be the most intelligent bird species in the world, but kākā are rating similarly on the IQ scales. It is fascinating watching them solve the tasks the researchers set them. The thought was that as social birds they would learn by watching their friends solve problems. From what I've seen, it appears more competitive than that with each wanting to show that they can solve puzzles their own way. It was quite incredible to see how many different techniques there are to solve the simple task of acquiring a cashew nut tied to the end of a string.
Not only are kākā super intelligent but they have complex emotional and social lives. We do of course have to be careful at over-anthropomorphizing, but I fear under-anthropomorphizing has had a negative effect not just on our understanding of animal cognition but also animal welfare. They might not think or feel identically to humans, but they think and feel and we shouldn't assume less.
MY FAVOURITE BOOKS ABOUT BIRD BRAINS
- Bird Sense - what it's like to be a bird, Tim Birkenhead
A highly approachable and fascinating read about bird abilities - including some you don't have!
- Bird Minds, Gisela Kaplan
A more academic book, but an incredible journey through bird abilities that will completely change the way you see your feathered friends.
- The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots, Irene Pepperberg
The research and researcher that changed the way we saw bird, and animal, communication and cognition. This is the more academic book, if you're interested in the research itself. The more approachable book is:
- Alex & Me: how a scientist and parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence-and formed a deep bond in the process, Irene Pepperberg
Simply a must read. It took Irene decades for her work to be accepted, so entrenched were the attitudes that birds and most other animals were soulless automata, incapable of complex thought.