By Antone Martinho
I have recently decided to bring two small parrots into my home. They are celestial parrotlets, originally from Ecuador and Peru, and one of the smallest parrot species that can cohabit with humans. I call them Dandolo and Madeleine. They fit well into my apartment life in Oxford, despite the burgeoning beak-scars on my fingers, and they fill my weekends with rainforest twittering.
They are the first birds I have kept as pets – which is surprising, because my professional life is entirely concerned with birds. I am interested in how they learn, what they learn, and the behaviours that made them such a successful group of organisms. Birds are directly descended from dinosaurs, and have diversified into more than 10,000 species, far more than mammals, amphibians or reptiles. In the past, I have worked with crows and pigeons, and am currently focused on ducks.
Recently I’ve been investigating whether ducks can learn the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different’. First, my colleagues and I trained ducklings to recognise, for example, two red spheres, via imprinting. This is the process by which young birds can learn to identify and follow a moving object, normally their mother. The shapes were attached to rotating booms, and the ducklings followed them around like a mother duck. Then we gave them a choice between two more pairs of shapes: two red pyramids, and a red cube and a red rectangular prism.
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