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Crows exhibit more self-control than other bird species

Animals use self-control to plan and achieve long-term goals. Birds, for instance, demonstrate delayed gratification when they resist a small, immediate reward in favor of waiting for a better one. Recent research has revealed intriguing differences in self-control behaviors between bird species, particularly in the presence of others.

This study was spearheaded by researchers from Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Cambridge, UK, and the University of Cambridge. It presents a fascinating comparison of the behavioral patterns of Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) and New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) in the context of delayed gratification.

Studying self-control in bird species

Eurasian jays and New Caledonian crows, both members of the corvid family, are known for their high intelligence. This study specifically explored how these birds respond to food choices when another bird is present, focusing on their ability to exhibit self-control through delayed gratification.

The core of the study was a rotating tray task, where they gave the birds two food choices: a high-quality and a low-quality option. The birds had to remove these from under clear plastic cups. Mealworm served as the high-quality food for jays, and bread as the low-quality food, while crows preferred meat over the less desirable apple.

The team tested each bird individually, letting them observe as the researchers placed both food types on the rotating tray. Simultaneously, another bird, either a competitor or a non-competitor, stayed in an adjacent compartment.

Right before the tray offered the less preferred food option, the researchers opened the door between the compartments. This allowed the second bird access. The tested bird then had the choice to either take the immediate option or wait 15 seconds for the preferred option to become available.

Delayed gratification and self-control

The study found a notable behavioral pattern among Eurasian jays. While alone, each jay chose the delayed reward (mealworm) but shifted to the immediate food choice (bread) when another bird was present, be it a competitor or a non-competitor. This flexibility in their decision-making underlines the influence of social context on their behavior.

In contrast, New Caledonian crows demonstrated remarkable consistency. They demonstrated self-control by waiting for the high-quality, delayed reward (meat), regardless of whether another bird was present. This consistency was observed in all test conditions, emphasizing the crows’ steadfastness in their preference.

Dr. Rachael Miller, Co-lead author and Senior Lecturer in Biology at Anglia Ruskin University, highlighted the significance of delayed gratification as an indicator of self-control in birds. She drew parallels between this study and similar research conducted on young children, using the rotating tray task to measure self-control.

“Interestingly, we found that jays were highly flexible in their use of delayed gratification, and this was entirely influenced by the presence of other birds, but the crows consistently chose the better, delayed reward, regardless of rival birds being present,” said Miller.

Miller pointed out the unexpected findings regarding the Eurasian jaybird’s flexibility in using delayed gratification, influenced entirely by the presence of other birds. In contrast, the New Caledonian crows’ consistent choice of the better, delayed reward, irrespective of rival birds, adds a new dimension to our understanding of animal behavior in social contexts.

Implications and conclusions

This research sheds light on the dynamics of self-control and factors influencing delayed gratification in animals. It suggests that a species’ social tolerance and competition levels play a significant role in these behaviors.

Dr. Miller expounded, “These findings add to our understanding of self-control and the factors influencing delayed gratification in animals, which may relate to a particular species’ social tolerance and levels of competition.”

Particularly, the more sociable nature of New Caledonian crows, compared to the territorial Eurasian jays, might explain their differing strategies. As Dr. Miller notes, the reliance of jays on hiding food for survival could be a key reason for their altered strategy in the presence of competitors, opting for immediate, less preferred food to avoid losing out.

In summary, this study not only enhances our understanding of avian intelligence but also opens up new avenues for exploring self-control mechanisms across different species in varying social settings.

More about Eurasian jays

Garrulus glandarius, commonly known as the Eurasian Jay, is a species of bird found predominantly across Europe and parts of North Asia. This bird is notable for its striking plumage, with a mix of pinkish-brown, black, white, and blue. Its size is comparable to that of a typical crow, but with a distinctive rounded tail and a slightly smaller build.

Eurasian Jays primarily inhabit woodlands, showing a preference for oak forests due to their reliance on acorns as a food source. Their diet, however, is omnivorous and varied, including insects, seeds, fruits, and occasionally small rodents or reptiles.

These birds demonstrate remarkable intelligence and self-control, a trait common in the corvid family. They are known for their ability to store food in numerous locations for later retrieval, showcasing an impressive memory. This caching behavior is crucial for their survival, especially in harsh winter conditions.

The Eurasian Jay is also famous for its vocal abilities, capable of mimicking the calls of other bird species and even human-made sounds. This skill plays a vital role in their social interactions and territorial behaviors.

In terms of reproduction, Eurasian Jays are monogamous, with pairs often forming long-term bonds. They build nests in trees, where the female typically lays between 4 to 6 eggs. Both parents participate in raising the young, which are ready to leave the nest within a few weeks.

Overall, the Eurasian Jay stands out as a resilient and adaptable species, thriving across various environments and exhibiting behaviors that reflect a high level of cognitive ability.

More about New Caledonian crows

Corvus moneduloides, commonly known as the New Caledonian Crow, is a remarkably intelligent bird species endemic to New Caledonia in the South Pacific. This bird is medium-sized, predominantly black, and identifiable by its straight and relatively slim bill, which distinguishes it from other crow species.

The New Caledonian Crow inhabits various habitats on the islands, including dense forests and open areas. These birds have adapted well to human-altered environments, and are well-known for their impressive self-control instinct.

One of the most striking aspects of this crow is its advanced tool-making ability. These birds are famous for crafting and using tools, such as twigs and leaves, to extract insects and other food from hard-to-reach places. This behavior is not only rare among birds but showcases an exceptional level of problem-solving skills and cognitive complexity.

New Caledonian Crows are omnivorous, feeding on a range of insects, fruits, and small animals. Its tool use is primarily associated with foraging for larvae and insects. They are known to live in loose family groups and exhibit a range of complex social behaviors.

Reproduction in New Caledonian Crows involves nest-building, usually in trees. The female typically lays around three eggs, and both parents are involved in nurturing the young. The juvenile crows stay with the parents for extended periods, learning vital survival and tool-use skills.

In summary, the New Caledonian Crow is a species of significant interest due to its sophisticated tool-using abilities, indicating a level of intelligence and adaptability that is remarkable in the avian world.

The full study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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