Study Shows Parrots Can Exercise Remarkable Self-Control

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June 12, 2013 | 7,714 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Scientists at the University of Vienna have made a fascinating discovery about certain birds. It seems they are able to exercise self-control – a trait previously associated only with animals with larger brains.
  • For the study, the researchers offered Goffin cockatoos a deal. If they could forego eating a pecan, they could trade it for an even yummier cashew. The cockatoos took the researchers up on their offer.
  • The cockatoos showed remarkable flexibility as they traded off between immediate and future benefits. Even more impressive was that the birds were able to wait for a preferred nut while holding the original nut in their beaks, in direct contact with their taste buds.

By Dr. Becker

Recently, scientists at the University of Vienna’s Department of Cognitive Biology conducted a study that suggests birds have the ability to exercise impulse control, a trait seen primarily in animals with larger brains. According to Discovery News, the study shows that birds “can exhibit remarkable self restraint, even performing better than some children.”

The study, titled Goffin cockatoos wait for qualitative and quantitative gains but prefer ‘better’ to ‘more’, was published in the journal Biology Letters1.

Bird version of the “Stanford marshmallow experiment”

Back in the 1970s, a study nicknamed the “Stanford marshmallow experiment” evaluated delayed gratification in three to five year-old children2. The kids were given the opportunity to either immediately eat a marshmallow they were offered, or wait for a number of minutes and receive a second marshmallow. Follow-up studies showed that children who were able to wait for a preferred reward tended to do better in life.

For the University of Vienna study, the research team gave Goffin cockatoos (an Indonesian cockatoo species) food snack options. Of those options, the birds clearly favored pecan nuts.

Next the researchers offered the cockatoos a deal. If they could forego eating the pecan, they could trade it for a cashew (which the birds liked even better than pecans). The cockatoos took the researchers up on their offer.

The cockatoos “acted astonishingly like economic agents”

According to Alice Auersperg, lead study author:

“When exchanging for better qualities, the Goffins acted astonishingly like economic agents, flexibly trading-off between immediate and future benefits.

“They did so, relative not only to the length of delay, but also to the difference in trade value between the ‘currency’ and the ‘merchandise’: they tended to trade their initial items more often for their most preferred food, than for one of intermediate preference value and did not exchange in a control test in which the value of the initial item was higher than that of the expected one.”

As if that wasn’t remarkable enough, the birds were able to wait for a preferred treat while holding the original treat in their beaks, in direct contact with their taste buds!

As Auersperg notes, “Imagine placing a cookie directly into a toddler’s mouth and telling him/her, he/she will only receive a piece of chocolate if the cookie is not nibbled for over a minute.”

Not only does this study show just how intelligent Goffin cockatoos are, it also, according to Discovery News, shows that researchers can become very popular with birds if they often feed them tasty nuts!

Watch Muppet wait patiently for a chance to trade up to a better nut:

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Biology Letters, June 23, 2013, Vol. 9 No. 3
  • 2 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 21(2), February 1972, 204-218