Kaka – Can you teach an old parrot new tricks?

Kaka parrot in the wildKaka parrot had their IQ tested for the first time by Julia Loepelt, a student at Victoria University of Wellington.

Most of us have heard the parrot and crows are the brains of the bird world and New Zealand’s mountain parrot, the kea, regularly excels at intelligence tests. But what about their forests cousin, the kaka? Are they just as good at their problem solving ability as kea?

Julia Loepelt tested more than 100 willing wild kaka parrots at Zealandia park in exchange of a few treats. The age of the birds ranged from 4 months to 13 years.

Kaka parrots have their solving problem ability tested for the first time

What her study found is that younger birds are innovative and more persistent problem solvers than older parrots. It turned out that older parrots set in their ways failed to solve several of the experiments.

Julia suggests that this greater behavioural flexibility in young birds helps them develop efficient ways of feeding that they can use for the rest of their lives.

The tests

The birds which took part in the tests reside in the Zealnadia Sanctuary in Wellington and as well as foraging for themselves in the bush, they regularly visit feeding stations to top up on parrot pellets. Julia decided to use these feeding stations for two out of the three experiments. From the 100+ birds only 24 took part in all three experiments and only 5 juvenile parrots successfully solved all three problems.

The ‘block removal’ experiment 

Kaka parrot removing an wooden block


In this experiments the birds had to recognise that a block of wood under the treadle place was preventing the lid of the feeder from lifting. None of the adult parrots could solve the problem. More than 40% of the juvenile birds managed to work out that the block had to be removed in order to access the treats in the feeder.


Kaka parrot opening the lid of feeding stationThe ‘lid opening’ experiment 
In this experiment the treadle plate which lifted the lid was removed. The birds had to work out that the key to success is to go around to the side and flip the lid from there.  More than half of the young birds managed to solve this challenge and only one adult bird.



The ‘string pulling’ experiment

Kaka parrot pulling string with treatsIn this challenge a cashew nut was suspended on a long piece of string and there were a number of ways of solving this problem, including hanging upside down. This experiment was not based using the familiar feeder and had the highest success rate. All of the juvenile birds solved it and more than the half of the adults did as well.

This article was first published 1 June 2016 by @Alison Ballance on RNZ

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