Friday Grey Matters: Birds Plan Ahead for Dinner

According to the Bischof-Kohler hypothesis, only humans can dissociate themselves from their current motivation and take action for future needs: other animals are incapable of anticipating future needs, and any future-oriented behaviors they exhibit are either fixed action patterns or cued by their current motivational state. Well guess what, thats a lot of BS. According to a paper published in the most recent edition of Nature details that birds--scrub jays, in this study--genuinely plan ahead.

(Continued below the fold...)

Two requirements for planning are:
1. the behavior involves a novel action
2. the behavior should be appropriate to a motivational state other than the one the animal is in at that moment.

Raby et al describes the first observations of birds which fufill both those requirements. Scrub jays naturally hide away food, and in Raby's experiments, jays were first given the opportunity to get information about the location of a food source that would be available in the morning. The evening before, the authors observed the birds planning for breakfast by catching food in the place where it was most like to be needed.

The jays lived in large cages with 3 "rooms": the breakfast room, the central room, and no-breakfast room (below).

i-2e46047a2904b9f6159935955ad251d2-bird room.bmp

Experiment 1: The birds were given powdered pine nuts to eat, which they couldn't store away, and then the next morning each bird was confined to one of the end rooms for two hours. In the 'breakfast room', a bird was always fed, whereas in the 'no breakfast room' no food was given. After several days of this treatment, the birds came to expect food in the breakfast room, and no food in the no-breakfast room. During the test phase, the birds were given whole pine nuts the night before, and were allowed to store them wherever they pleased. They found that the birds stored three times as many pine nuts in the no-breakfast room as in the breakfast room. All the data came from this one test, so the effect of having or not having food the next day didn't impact the birds' behavior.

Experiment 2: In this experiment, the birds learned the expect breakfast in both rooms, with peanuts in one and dog kibble in the other. That evening, the birds began to store peanuts and kibble in the rooms so that each room held the food it normally lacks (ie, they stored peanuts in the kibble room and vice versa).

And from the discussion:

Not much more than 100 years ago, interpreting any of these observations as humanlike planning would not have been problematic. Indeed, Darwin's programme for documenting evolutionary continuity between human minds and those of other species encouraged anthropomorphic interpretations of animal behaviour. This attitude was largely replaced, in both experimental psychology and ethology,by a bias against 'mentalistic' explanations. But recent years have seen a resurgence of attempts to document processes in animals that in humans are accompanied by distinctive conscious states. Besides thinking about the future, examples include awareness of other individuals' states of mind, understanding how tools work, intentional deception, and empathy.

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Wait a minute. Are you saying that these people don't remember what they learned in childhood cartoons, about squirrels plannning ahead?. Are you saying that animals DON't store nuts for winter? I'm flabberghasted!

By tribalecho (not verified) on 24 Feb 2007 #permalink

Great reporting on this important Nature article.

Birds as chordates have some features of intelligence in common with primates.

Birds just see better.

Birds do not seem to have the sapience of self recognition.

Two related topics:
1 - Gentner TQ et al, Recursive syntactic pattern learning by songbirds, Nature, 2006, 440, 1204-1207

2 - Behavioural Ecology Research Group at the University of Oxford: New Caledonian Crows use tools to get food.

More at Mico Tatalovic, University of Oxford, 'The Triple Helix', "Birds understand grammar?"

There seems to be a flaw in the second study. If the birds were engaging in purely random moving of kibbles and peanuts, then we'd see exactly the same effect as was observed. To verify that the effect is non-random, they'd have to show that there were more direct transfers in the downhill direction than direct transfers in the uphill direction. Not net transfers, direct transfers.

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 24 Feb 2007 #permalink

Scrub jays, incorrectly referred to here as "blue jays" have also been shown to behave differently depending on whom they observe to be watching them.

"Here" meaning the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, uphill from Caltech in lovely Altadena, California.

My family watches scrub jays in our garden with great interests. So does our dog, though not for the same reasons.

Will the term "bird brain" in popular usage be changed by these scientific publications?

Scrub jays also have a remarkable spatial memory. They're able to store nuts in up to 30,000 different locations and recover the caches 6-9 months later. If they notice another jay watching them caching nuts, they return later and hide them elsewhere!

The tool-making abilities of crows are perhaps more sophisticated than those of chimps. They fashion tools in almost exactly the same as the chimps in yesterday's headlines.

Jonathan - you can call me bird brain.

Good lord! African Gray Parrots can learn the language skills of a three-year-old. The joke is that they have the temperament of a two-year-old.

And, yes, the corvids (crows, ravens, jackdaws) and their cousins the jays are notoriously clever. Ravens in particular have a habit of surprising their keepers with new behaviors. A cross-species intelligence review found that stationary birds are generally brighter than migratory birds.

Jackdaws have an annoying behavior: if one notices you harassing another jackdaw, it will memorize your appearance. When you, it, and another jackdaw coexist, it will warn the other one about you and they will both harass you. And so forth... If you mess with a jackdaw, you should get plastic surgery and leave town, 'cause you're toast, baby!

Note to the literati: jackdaw is Kafka in Czech.

By Craig Shergold (not verified) on 26 Feb 2007 #permalink

This is cool - thanks for blogging it.

Might I also request that you give the actual citation of the paper, or link to the freely available abstract rather than the full-text pdf link, since not everyone has complete online access to the journal? Even some of us at some universities don't have that access and have to look up the papers in the hard copy in the library. So a citation would really help, especially when you summarize it so well that one wants to read the whole paper!

SB: Of course, sorry about that. I usually work from a campus locale and it isn't always apparent to me which links are pay-only and which aren't. Thanks for including the link!