New Zealand kea can use touchscreens but can’t distinguish between real and virtual worlds

The kea, an endangered New Zealand parrot, is clever enough to use touchscreens but don’t appear to be able to tell the difference between the real and virtual worlds, according to a new study.

Researchers taught six kea at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch to operate touchscreens. The birds were presented with a series of tasks that were either entirely physical, entirely on-screen or a mixture of both.

Amalia Bastos, a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland and the study’s first author, said while kea have been trained to use electronic devices in the past, the research showed virtual tests could be used to accurately study the bird’s natural behaviour in the real world.

Bastos hopes the research could improve the success of breed-and-release conservation programs for the endangered parrot. “They’re really hard to keep in captivity because they’re so intelligent, so they need to constantly be mentally enriched so that they stay mentally healthy,” she said.

This requires zookeepers giving the birds fun games to play, Bastos said, but “they’re very curious and they will very quickly learn that if they spend time around humans, humans are positive thing”.

Crowned New Zealand’s bird of the year in 2017, the kea is the world’s only alpine parrot. It is a highly inquisitive and mischievous species, notorious for attacking windscreen wipers and rummaging through bags, in one case stealing a Scottish man’s passport. Threats to its survival include lead poisoning from housing finishings and deaths from human interactions.

Bastos said kea bred in captivity and given mental enrichment through screens, without human interaction, might be more suitable for release in the wild. “It’s really important to keep them away from human environments as much as possible,” she said.

Because the birds’ beaks are made of keratin – like human fingernails – which cannot activate touch screens, the researchers smeared peanut butter on the devices and trained the kea to activate the screens by licking them.

The team presented the kea with a black ball on a seesaw, which tilted so the ball fell into one of two boxes. The kea learned to track the ball and pick the box where it was hidden, in exchange for food.

The task was replicated on-screen with an entirely virtual ball and boxes, before the researchers repeated the task with a mixture of virtual and physical elements.

The kea expected a real box to contain a virtual ball, suggesting the birds believed an on-screen event continued in the real world.

A similar study testing cognition in humans found that 19-month-old toddlers can distinguish between the real and virtual worlds and don’t expect events to crossover between the two.

“We would expect that younger infants might behave more like kea in that they might think that it’s continuous,” Bastos said.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Biology Letters.

Previous research from the University of Auckland team includes a study on Bruce, a disabled kea with a damaged beak, who taught himself to use pebbles as tools to preen himself.