Kea Projects


The ability of several individuals to supportively work towards a comon goal, is probably one of the reasons for the success of human beings. However, it is not an uncommon phenomenon in other life forms, i.e. predators that hunt together, birds that share in the raising of their young, etc. The investigation of this behaviour, especially when applied to a novel context, has spread ever farther in the cognition and behaviour research in the last years. The kea, with its high level of social intelligence, is a perfect candidate to research the underlying methods and tactics of cooperation in parrots. In collaboration with the world-renowned behaviourist Prof Ronald Noë, the kea lab has begun to venture down this highly interesting line of research.


Vocal Imitation in Kea

Although parrots are famous for their vocal imitation abilities, these are sparsely researched. Vocal imitation can be important for social interactions, and orange-fronted conures and galahs have been shown to imitate the contact calls of other members of their species. It may also be important for pair-bonding in some species, for example budgerigars, in which paired males imitate their female partner’s calls. The function of vocal mimicry (the imitation of sounds made by other species, or even inorganic sounds like wind) has not been researched  in parrots at all.  
The kea is a member of the most ancient branch of the parrot family tree, the Newzealand parrots, and retains ancestral traits in its vocal anatomy that in some ways more resemble falcons (the sister group to the parrots) than more modern parrots like galahs or budgerigars. By investigating vocal imitation and mimicry in kea, we hope to find out about the origins of imitation in parrots, as well as its function in this particular species.


Tool use behaviour

Aiming to change the state of an external object by using another one is a hallmark behaviour. Our captive kea do so although wild kea are no common tool users. Thus kea lack biological predispositions for tool using. This opens up a window for investigating what they understand about the physics of tools and how they perform in comparison to species that are common tool users. Tool use provides an elegant opportunity to investigate physical cognition experimentally and the impact of learning when watching tool using group members.

 [Link 1]

Touchscreen tasks screened

Animals are simply required to touch a stimulus on a screen in order that a device will automatically record that and, eventually, a small food reward will be provided. Because many animal species can do so and the tasks can easily be changed by the experimenter, this methodology provides an enormous value for comparative cognition. Yet, are the learning processes in touchscreen tasks the same as when kea interact with solid objects? And how do kea manage to succeed in using more elaborative computer-game like tasks?

 [Link 2]

Analogical reasoning

Reasoning by analogy requires one to pay attention to the relation between objects and the ability to abstract and transfer this relation to novel instances, not necessarily sharing any properties with the original objects other than the relation between them (“AA” is the same as “BB”, but different to “CD”). The role of language for this ability has been discussed thoroughly and only recent research has shown that, though it might enhance analogical reasoning, it is not a prerequisite. With the notion in mind that avian cognition is not merely a product of “bird brains”, in the analogical reasoning project we are trying to investigate how sophisticated the kea’s mental abilities really are.


Exploration behaviour

Exploration is a core behaviour for gathering information and a key for developing innovations. Kea are world-wide known for their neophilic and explorative nature, but relatively little is known about the internal structure, organisation and complexity of animal exploration in general. How cognitive is exploration in kea and in comparison to other animals? What is the impact of extractive foraging on intrinsic motivation to explore? Because animals display exploration behaviour for many of their needs, curiosity research is also of fundamental interest for human-animal interaction.

 [Link 3]

Interplay of field and lab for cognition research

Our research is conducted in environmentally enriched aviaries and we emphasize a comparison with wild kea. Kea are especially interesting because the neophilic nature, allowing conduction of experimental studies at both sites. This helps to clarify the relevance of laboratory findings and to investigate phenomena observed in the field under controlled conditions.
For example kea do extract food in the wild. What kind of behavioural and motivational predispositions might this require and what will be the impact for tasks such as inferential reasoning in the aviary or for finding more of novel food elsewhere?

 [Link 4]