New Zealand Kea can use touch screens but cannot distinguish between real and virtual worlds | Birds
The endangered New Zealand parrot kea is smart enough to use touchscreens, but doesn’t seem able to tell the difference between the real world and the virtual world, according to a new study.
Researchers taught six kea at Willowbank Wildlife Sanctuary in Christchurch to use touch screens. The birds were subjected to a series of tasks that were either entirely physical, entirely on-screen, or a mixture of the two.
Amalia Bastos, a PhD student at the University of Auckland and the study’s first author, said that although Kea has been trained to use electronic devices in the past, research has shown that virtual tests could be used to study precisely the natural behavior of the bird in the real world. .
Bastos hopes the research could improve the success of endangered parrot breeding and release conservation programs. “They’re really hard to keep captive because they’re so smart, so they need to be constantly mentally enriched to stay mentally healthy,” she said.
This requires zookeepers to give the birds fun games to play, Bastos said, but “they are very curious and they will learn very quickly that if they spend time with humans, humans are a positive thing.”
Crowned New Zealand’s Bird of the Year in 2017, the kea is the only alpine parrot in the world. It is a very curious and mischievous species, known to attack windshield wipers and rummage through bags, in one case to steal a Scottish man’s passport. Threats to its survival include lead poisoning from home finishing and death from human interactions.
Bastos said the captive-bred and mentally enriched screen kea, without human interaction, may be more suited for release into the wild. “It’s really important to keep them as far away from human environments as possible,” she said.
Because birds’ beaks are made of keratin – like human fingernails – which can’t activate touch screens, the researchers coated the devices with peanut butter and trained the kea to activate the screens by licking them.
The team presented the kea with a black ball on a swing, which tilted so that the ball fell into one of the two boxes. The kea learned to follow the ball and pick up the box where it was hidden, in exchange for food.
The task was reproduced on screen with a fully virtual ball and boxes, before the researchers repeated the task with a mixture of virtual and physical elements.
The kea expected a real box to contain a virtual ball, suggesting the birds believed an on-screen event was continuing in the real world.
A similar study testing cognition in humans found that 19-month-old toddlers can distinguish between real and virtual worlds and don’t expect events to intersect between the two.
“We would expect younger infants to behave more like kea in that they might think it’s continuous,” Bastos said.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Biology Letters.
Previous research from the University of Auckland team includes a study of Bruce, a disabled kea with a damaged beak, who learned to use pebbles as tools for preening on his own.