Bird-brained?

Certainly not the North Island robin anyway, which has just demonstrated no less a scientific finding that some animals may possess a general intelligence structure similar to that of us.

The tiny native bird, which is only slightly larger than a house sparrow, features in a new study in the leading scientific journal Animal Behaviour, and provides the first direct evidence of birds having a general underlying intelligence that pins together all of its different cognitive skills.

Victoria University animal behaviour researcher Dr Rachael Shaw was able to prove this by setting up six voluntary cognitive tasks for a group of the birds at Zealandia, focusing on colours, symbols, spatial memory, inhibitory control and motor skills.

Advertisement

"The question we wanted to ask was, can we quantify cognitive ability or intelligence in a wild animal, and if we do that, do we see a similar kind of structure to their intelligence that we see in humans?"

While some birds had been shown to be remarkably clever with some cognitive tasks -- New Zealand research has particularly proven how brainy the New Caledonian crow is at solving complex problems -- there had been little scientific research around the underlying base of intelligence.

Dr Shaw's statistical analyses showed robins may have something like it, and that these patterns were highly unlikely to have happened by chance.

She said setting a variety of tasks was imperative for measuring the structure of intelligence in the robins, which were perfect subjects given their territorial behaviour and curiosity made them more likely to approach humans.

"Completing a one-off task may be dependent on other factors like the animals motivation to participate, and doesn't provide a reliable measure of cognitive ability.

"We carried out a series of tests to see if you could get consistent measures from an individual.

"It's a similar process to running an IQ test or psychometric test on humans."

She checked the robins were motivated to do their best by teaching them to jump on a scale and eat a worm before and after each test.

"The end check is really important because if a bird is failing a task, you want to ensure that they still want food rewards."

Over five months, Dr Shaw tested 20 robins, using computer analysis and statistical techniques to tease out correlations in the performance of the birds and see whether it was underpinned by a general intelligence factor.

Dr Shaw now plans to investigate how individual cognitive abilities are linked to reproductive success and survival.

"I think it's intriguing that you pick up patterns in performance in birds that are similar to the patterns we see in humans -- it has the potential to tell us more about brains and how brains work. It would be great if more people ran similar studies that incorporated more data."

The study was supported by a Rutherford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship and a Marsden Fast Start grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand.