Sunday, February 10, 2013

New evidence for bird brains

There is new research trying to convince us that birds are capable of mindreading. AAAS Science magazine reported this a couple of weeks ago:
Are crows mind readers? Recent studies have suggested that the birds hide food because they think others will steal it -- a complex intuition that has been seen in only a select few creatures. Some critics have suggested that the birds might simply be stressed out, but new research reveals that crows may be gifted after all.
And now they report:
Well, jays are actually known as very intelligent birds. Scientists have shown previously that they can plan for the future, that they have sort of some conception of not just the current moment in time, but future moments. And so they thought this would be a good species to study to see if jays also had,maybe,this theory of mind. And the experiment they tried was actually kind of neat. It turns out that jays have pretty complicated courtship displays. And when the male jay – Eurasian jay in this case – is trying to woo a female,he actually feeds her during the courtship display. And he tries to feed her food that she likes. Well it turns out jays have a preference for certain foods. Given the choice, they prefer mealworm larvae, or wax moth larvae, but they can get sick of a food if they eat too much of it. So the scientists also knew that when the birds have been fed a lot of wax moth larvae, they tend to switch to the mealworms after a while because they just kind of get tired of the same food over and over again,kind of like we do. And so the researchers set up an experiment where the male could actually watch what the female was eating. So if the female was eating, for example, a lot of wax moth larvae, the male would start feeding her mealworm larvae,and vice versa. It was almost as if he was saying, look, I know you’re probably getting sick of that. Here’s a different kind of food.
This seems dubious to me. We don't know that the birds are getting sick of the wax moth larvae. Maybe a varied diet is healthier, and the birds sense that. Or maybe they have instincts for a varied diet.

Maybe the male jays have learned, by instinct or experience, that it is easier to get the female's attention by giving her food that is different from what she is eating.

I say:
My theory is that people like to anthropomorphize animals and concoct rich explanations when lean ones suffice. They are convinced that animals have empathy, even tho no one can prove it.
There is other evidence that crows are extremely smart animals, as they can use tools and recognize people. But this is a stretch.

Update: Matthew Cobb comments on the bird study:
Imagining that others experience the same feelings as oneself, or being able to see things from another’s perspective, is an essential part of being an adult human – it’s called having a ‘theory of mind’. Young children find it difficult, and either learn it or develop this ability as part of normal growth. Severely autistic individuals can also fail some of the simple tests that are used to measure this ability. This character, or a primitive version of it, must have been present in our primate ancestors, and there is evidence that chimps can attribute ‘intentionality’ to human behaviour, which suggests they can image what we feel/think.
Actually, the evidence that chimps or other non-human primates read human intentionality is very weak. Ordinary dogs can understand human pointing much better than chimps.

No comments: