Will Parrots Work For Food explained by Dr Irene Pepperberg.
Dr Pepperberg, an adjunct associate professor at the Dept. of Psychology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, is cracking the code when it comes to how parrots work for food and their foraging behaviour.
We have a choice – work hard for things we want or receive what we need for free. We all know we wish we could pick the easiest route. It’s a simple choice, right? Not according to researchers that find for almost every subject tested when the choice involves food. All but domestic cats.
Working for Food?
The technical term for choosing to work for a reward rather than getting it for free is called “contra-freeloading.” This first was first shown in behaviour from rats in 1963. Glen Jensen found that rats would work for about 50% of their daily ration even if they could receive 100% for free. At first, the scientific community believed that the finding was specific to rats only. That, because of their feeding strategies in nature, they might figure that the food for which they had to work was an ephemeral source that they had to exploit for as long as possible and that the free food would be around as a backup. After further research, it turns out that on studies from pigeons, to bears, and apes, this behaviour seems to be widespread! Even in humans!
Dr Pepperberg says, “As someone who studies parrot cognition, most interesting to me was a study recently presented at the International Ethological Congress in Portugal. The experiment involved an exchange paradigm, in which parrots could choose either a token they could trade for a particular parrot food or some food itself. If the token represented a lesser-quality food than the food choice, the birds chose the food item; if the token represented a higher quality food, the birds chose the token and traded up. The critical trials were where the token represented the same quality food as the food item presented, as that would actually test for contra-freeloading.”
Four species were tested: great green macaws, blue-throated macaws, blue-headed macaws, and Grey parrots. Although the great green macaws seemed to choose food, the other three macaw species and grey parrots all chose the token. So, what gives?
Foraging Caters To A Parrot’s Wild Instincts
Dr Pepperberg couldn’t seem to figure out why the one species of macaw would act more like domestic cats than any of the other species. The findings suggest the real importance of providing foraging opportunities for our parrots. In the wild, most parrot species (including those great green macaws) travel long distances every day and have to work fairly hard to get their nourishment. For example, African greys crack nuts, eviscerate fruits, and juice bark. Such behaviour is part and parcel of their lives. They are not made to be “perch-potatoes,” simply sitting around and eating out of a dish.
In captivity, having the chance to figure out a new foraging toy is probably one of the most interesting parts of their day. They really seem to enjoy the challenge of learning about the affordances of such toys. Dr Pepperberg says, “I wrote in last month’s blog, one of our Greys, Athena, was most annoyed when we failed to fill her foraging toy, even when she could eat the same food from her bowl. Sometimes, too, I think my birds like to ask for specific treats not because they really want the foods, but because they want the social interactions with the students who are providing the items!”
To conclude, when owners provide foraging parrot toys — particularly if several are provided at once — parrots aren’t merely being provided with a distraction. They are being given a choice as to how they wish to spend their time, and also some control over how they choose to live their lives. And they are telling us, loud and clear, that at least some of the time, they would rather work for food than not!