Kea Research



The ability of several individuals to supportively work towards a common 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 tolerance, 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. The loose-string paradigm has been the gold-standard in vertebrate cooperation research for the last decades. The kea showed that with minimal training they were able to coordinate their behaviours and chose to do so more with affiliated individuals. Subsequent changes in the training methodology are being implemented to further understand the learning processes involved. Additionally new apparatus requiring more than two individuals to act in unison have been designed to test for the social factors affecting cooperative success.

Schwing R, Jocteur E, Wein A, Massen JJM, Noë R (2016) Kea cooperate better with sharing affiliates. Anim Cogn 19(6):1–10.

Huber, L., Gajdon, G., Federspiel, I., & Werdenich, D. (2008). Cooperation in Keas: Social and Cognitive Factors. In S. Itakura & K. Fujita (Eds.), Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary and developmental views (pp. 99-119). Tokyo, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer.




Vocal Imitation in Kea

Although parrots are famous for their vocal imitation abilities, these are sparsely researched, and their function (including 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 New Zealand parrots, and 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.

The base of all vocal learning is found during their natural ontogeny. Cameras and audio devices record the young kea from hatching through fledging. A collaboration with vocal learning expert Prof Martine Hausberger from the University of Rennes is providing further expertise and analytical support in tracking the changes from the simple sounds of a hatchling to the complex vocal repertoire of an adult kea.

In addition, a sound chamber with direct access from the main aviary is allowing the adult kea to be trained in the reproduction of model sounds. Training the kea to vocalise on command, an essential yet often difficult first step, has been achieved, and further research will help us understand to what extent the kea can imitate and/or vocally learn into adulthood.

Wein A, Schwing R, Hausberger M, Rodriguez R, Huber L (2018) Vocal conditioning in kea parrots (Nestor notabilis). J Comp Psychol 132(1):97–10





Play is a widespread phenomenon in vertebrate species, yet the function of play is still poorly understood. Kea (Nestor notabilis) have highly complex play behaviour and unlike most other species that play as juveniles, display such into adulthood. Research on their call repertoire has shown them to have a distinct play vocalization which when heard by conspecifics acts as an emotional contagion. This suggests that play may act as a social facilitator in a flock of kea, which in the wild have only very weak hierarchies to govern social interactions. Current research is further exploring the connection between play and social tolerance.

Schwing R, Nelson XJ, Wein A, Parsons S (2017) Positive emotional contagion in a New Zealand parrot. Curr Biol 27(6):R213–R214.

Gajdon, G. K., Lichtnegger, M., & Huber, L. (2014). What a parrot’s mind adds to play: the urge to produce novelty fosters tool use acquisition in kea. Open Journal of Animal Sciences, 4, 51–58. doi:10.4236/ojas.2014.42008




Technical intelligence (incl. tool use behaviour)

The ability to act on information flexibly is one of the cornerstones of intelligent behaviour. As particularly informative example, tool-oriented behavior has been investigated to determine to which extent nonhuman animals understand means–end relations, object affordances, and have specific motor skills. Even planning with foresight, goal-directed problem solving and immediate causal inference have been a focus of research. However, these cognitive abilities may not be restricted to tool-using animals but may be found also in animals that show high levels of curiosity, object exploration and manipulation, and extractive foraging behavior. The kea is a particularly good example. Our captive kea have changed the state of an external object by using another one even though wild kea are not known tool users and thus lack biological predispositions for tool using. Thus they showed truly innovative behaviour. We are not only interested to learn what they understand about the physics of tools and how they perform in comparison to species that are common tool users, but also what they learn when watching tool using group members.

Gajdon, G. K., Ortner, T. M., Wolf, C. C., & Huber, L. (2013). How to solve a mechanical problem: the relevance of visible and unobservable functionality for kea. Animal Cognition, 16(3), 483–492. doi:10.1007/s10071-012-0588-5

Auersperg, A. M. I., Gajdon, G. K., & Huber, L. (2011). Navigating a tool end in a specific direction: stick-tool use in kea ( Nestor notabilis). Biology Letters, 7, 825–828. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2011.0388

Auersperg AMI, von Bayern AMP, Gajdon GK, Huber L, Kacelnik A (2011) Flexibility in problem solving and tool use of kea and new caledonian crows in a multi access box paradigm. PLoS One 6(6).

Auersperg, A. M. I., Gajdon, G. K., & Huber, L. (2010). Kea, Nestor notabilis, produce dynamic relationships between objects in a second-order tool use task. Animal Behaviour, 80(5), 783-789.

Gajdon, G. K., Amann, L., & Huber, L. (2011). Keas rely on social information in a tool use task but abandon it in favour of overt exploration. Interaction Studies, 12(2), 304–323. doi:10.1075/is.12.2.06gaj

Miyata, H., Gajdon, G. K., Huber, L., & Fujita, K. (2011). How do keas (Nestor notabilis) solve artificial-fruit problems with multiple locks? Animal Cognition, 14(1), 45–58. doi:DOI 10.1007/s10071-010-0342-9

Auersperg, A. M. I., Gajdon, G. K., & Huber, L. (2009). Kea (Nestor notabilis) consider spatial relationships between objects in the support problem. Biology Letters, 5(4), 455-458. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0114

Huber, L., & Gajdon, G., K. (2006). Technical intelligence in animals: the kea model. Animal Cognition, V9(4), 295-305. doi:10.1007/s10071-006-0033-8

Werdenich, D., & Huber, L. (2006). A case of quick problem solving in birds: string-pulling in keas (Nestor notabilis). Animal Behaviour, 71(4), 855-863.




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.

Carducci, P., Schwing, R., Huber, L., & Truppa, V. (2018). Tactile information improves visual object discrimination in kea, Nestor notabilis, and capuchin monkeys, Sapajus spp. Animal Behaviour, 135(1), 199–207. doi:

Lambert, M. L., Schiestl, M., Schwing, R., Taylor, A. H., Gajdon, G. K., Slocombe, K. E., & Seed, A. M. (2017). Function and flexibility of object exploration in kea and New Caledonian crows. Royal Society open science, 4(9), 170652.

O'Hara, M., Mioduszewska, B., von Bayern, A., Auersperg, A., Bugnyar, T., Wilkinson, A., . . . Gajdon, G. K. (2017). The temporal dependence of exploration on neotic style in birds. Scientific Reports, 7, 4742. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04751-0

Schloegl, C., Dierks, A., Gajdon, G. K., Huber, L., Kotrschal, K., & Bugnyar, T. (2009). What You See Is What You Get? Exclusion Performances in Ravens and Keas. PLoS ONE, 4(8), e6368.




Discrimination of pictures and objects

Touchscreen technology has allowed researchers to test a multitude of species with a highly comparable methodology. However, before images of objects can be used, the affordances of a 2 dimensional representation need to be clarified. Therefore, the kea have been tested in their ability to recognize pictures of objects they had previously been trained to discriminate in real life. While this was achieved, another line of research comparing touchscreen results with those from real objects also showed that there are differences in the learning processes between the two methodologies. With this as a baseline we can venture down many new avenues of research utilizing the touchscreen technology, e.g. reversal learning and the recognition of individuals.

O’Hara M, et al. (2015) The advantage of objects over images in discrimination and reversal learning by kea, Nestor notabilis. Anim Behav 101:51–60.

Wein A, Gajdon GK, Schwing R (2015) Picture - Object Recognition in Kea (Nestor notabilis). Ethology 121(11). doi:10.1111/eth.12423




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.

O’Hara M, Schwing R, Federspiel I, Gajdon GK, Huber L (2016) Reasoning by exclusion in the kea (Nestor notabilis). Anim Cogn 19(5):965–975.

O’Hara, M., Gajdon, G. K., & Huber, L. (2012). Kea Logics: How These Birds Solve Difficult Problems and Outsmart Researchers. In S. Watanabe (Ed.), Logic and Sensibility (pp. 23–38). Tokio: Keio University Press.

Huber, L. (2009). Degrees of rationality in human and non-human animals. In S. Watanabe, A. P. Blaisdell, L. Huber, & A. Young (Eds.), Rational Animals, Irrational Humans (pp. 3–21). Tokyo: Keio University Press.

Watanabe, S., & Huber, L. (2006). Animal logics: Decisions in the absence of human language. Animal Cognition, V9(4), 235-245. doi:10.1007/s10071-006-0043-6





Observational learning

In the last few decades, cognitive scientists have come to see social learning as an important manifestation of intelligence in both human and nonhuman species. Social learning not only refers to general learning processes that are employed for group behavior, but to new and unique strategies to control the relationships between conspecifics and to transmit information between individuals and generations. Our interest focused on both the mechanisms underlying learning through conspecific observation and their contribution to the horizontal transmission of innovations. While in marmosets and dogs we had a strong focus on imitation, in the kea we have been interested in other forms of non-genetic transmission of information, especially emulation (learning about the properties or the function of objects). Not only have we obtained empirical evidence of extremely strong social effects on the exploration of a multi-functional food box, but also some evidence that the birds acquired some understanding of the affordances of objects. Interestingly, such strong influence of observation of group members has (so far) not been shown by kea in the wild.

Gajdon, G. K., Amann, L., & Huber, L. (2011). Keas rely on social information in a tool use task but abandon it in favour of overt exploration. Interaction Studies, 12(2), 304–323. doi:doi 10.1075/is.12.2.06gaj

Range, F., Horn, L., Bugnyar, T., Gajdon, G., K., & Huber, L. (2009). Social attention in keas, dogs, and human children. Animal Cognition, 12, 181–192.

Gajdon, G. K., Fijn, N., & Huber, L. (2006). Limited spread of innovation in a wild parrot, the kea (Nestor notabilis). Animal Cognition, 9(3), 173-181. doi:10.1007/s10071-006-0018-7

Gajdon, G., Fijn, N., & Huber, L. (2004). Testing social learning in a wild mountain parrot, the kea (Nestor notabilis). Learning & Behavior, 32, 62-71.

Huber, L. (2002). Clever birds: Keas learn through observation. Interpretive Birding Bulletin, 3(4), 57-59.

Huber, L., Rechberger, S., & Taborsky, M. (2001). Social learning affects object exploration and manipulation in keas, Nestor notabilis. Animal Behaviour, 62(5), 945-954.




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. The field also serves as the main source of information on natural behaviour for kea, which can then form the basis for future studies in the lab to disentangle observed behaviour from possible causes. In a collaborative effort with the Universities of Auckland and Canterbury in New Zealand, a study on the hearing range in kea was conducted at our lab to complement the vocalisations studies done with wild kea.

Schwing R, Nelson XJ, Parsons S (2016) Audiogram of the kea parrot, Nestor notabilis. J Acoust Soc Am 140(5).


Kea Lab