By Lynley Hargreaves 23/03/2017

Dr Rachael Shaw

Bird brain shouldn’t be an insult anymore, says Victoria University Research Fellow Dr Rachael Shaw, because birds can do amazing things. Dr Shaw studied the cognition of a population of curious robins in Wellington’s Zealandia ecosanctuary with a Fast-Start Marsden Fund grant. Together with students, she has since found these birds may be able to pass on behaviours taught to them by humans to their offspring. Dr Shaw tells us how her results can help us understand the evolution of intelligence, and might even offer insights into ways to teach Wellington’s burgeoning kaka population to avoid the pitfalls of living in a human-centric environment.

How can bird brains tell us about the way intelligence works?

There are two main theories of intelligence that researchers typically focus on, which are hotly debated. One is the idea that there is some kind of general intelligence that underpins a range of cognitive skills, the other is a more modular view of how the brain works. For example, robin are a caching species – they hide food and then have to remember where they’ve hidden it. They should have really good spatial memory, and if intelligence works in a more modular way then spatial memory isn’t necessarily going to be related to other kinds of ability.

With humans, the way that we typically measure intelligence is with something like an IQ test, which taps into a whole lot of different cognitive abilities. It turns out that if humans do well in one part of the test they also do well in other parts of the test. This has been taken to mean that human cognitive ability is underpinned by general intelligence. The next question is – does general intelligence exist in other animals?

What I did with the robins is give them six different tasks, which were chosen to tap into different kinds of cognitive ability – motor skill acquistion, spatial memory, associative and reversal learning, symbol discrimination, as well as inhibitory control. Then I examined whether the birds that did well in one type of task tended to do well in others. And this was the case, so there also seems to be a general cognitive ability in robins that underpins their test battery performance.

What are the implications of many species having general intelligence?

If we had a really clear picture of what intelligence was and what its neurological basis was, and if we found evidence for that across a whole range of species, we might be able to say something about how intelligence evolved. For example, if we had a shared common ancestor and this is the way their cognition worked, would we all inherit that or would you see it in some groups but not others? What is it about a species’ environment or social interactions that would make general intelligence, rather than specialised abilities, more beneficial?

If we can start to figure this out we can start to figure out how and why cognition evolves the way that it does. This work is really in the early stages for non-human animals, though. Even just looking at chimpanzees there are some studies that support more modular views of cognition and some that support more general intelligence. There is also lot of debate, even about what we are measuring with our non-human cognitive test batteries. Obviously most of the tests for humans are based around vocabulary and words. With animals what we’re testing them on is non verbal tasks and there’s debate about what our tasks are actually measuring. For example if you have a test battery with six different tasks, you might think you’re measuring six different things, but the tasks could be tapping into the same abilities over and over again. That would lead you to find cognition is underpinned by general intelligence when it might not be.

Do robins actually do better in life if they succeed at your tests?

It seems to be the case. I’m just writing up work right now which involved giving birds spatial memory tests and then tracking those same adults through the breeding season. It does look like birds that did better on the tests are doing better in some measures of reproductive success. This could be because robin are a caching species, so being better at remembering where food is hidden could make the bird better at finding provisions for their offspring.

You’re also working with kaka. Is that research also about understanding intelligence generally?

Kaka bird peering over a branch
Kaka at Zealandia Ecosanctuary, Wellington. Credit: Julia Loepelt

No, with the kaka work what I’m really keen to do is harness cognition for conservation. When we reintroduce any species into a human-altered environment, it has a lot of challenges to cope with – novel predators, foods that might be toxic, or conflicts with humans such as explorative behaviour around someone’s ornamental garden or lead lights on a window. For example, there have been problems with metabolic bone disease in Wellington kaka which could be because a lot of people that love kaka will feed birds nuts, which can have a detrimental impact on their health. So the question is: how do we teach kaka to avoid eating nuts? And what could we do to make nut-avoiding behaviour spread between birds?

In the robin work that my students and I are doing now, birds that have grown up seeing their parents doing lid opening (a behaviour that we taught the adults) seem more likely to be able to do it themselves. Robins are highly territorial and not particularly sociable, so I’m pretty confident that if they can teach each other behaviours we have taught them then other birds such as kaka can too.

If we start to understand how birds think about the world we could use this to develop new methods for conservation. This could be particularly true in an urban environment where we don’t have any clear way of mitigating some threats, for example domestic cats. If we can instead modify a vulnerable species’ behaviour that could be a really cool way of tackling the problem from another angle.

You must hear jokes about ‘bird brain’ fairly often?

You do still hear it used as an insult. Most of my colleagues and myself think it’s a compliment in some ways. There are some things that birds can do that are amazing, that humans wouldn’t be able to do. The Clark’s Nutcracker is a species that hordes over twenty thousand seeds each year and then has to remember the locations of them all.

People see that species like pigeons or chickens have particularly small looking heads and don’t give them much credit. But the more research that people do into species that have historically been viewed with some contempt the more we realise that these animals can do amazing things, in terms of things like navigation or computation. Hopefully the insult of bird brain is just going to die out because, at this point, I think it’s pretty undeserved.

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which fosters science, technology and the humanities in New Zealand.