New Zealand parrot intelligent enough to use touch screen, yet incapable of differentiating between reality and the virtual world

Three researchers at the University of Auckland have found that New Zealand parrots are intelligent enough to operate touch screens, but not enough to understand the difference between virtual and real images. In a paper published in the journal Biology Letters, Amalia Bastos, Patrick Wood and Alex Taylor describe the various experiments they conducted with the endangered birds.

New Zealand parrot intelligent


New Zealand parrots are well known in New Zealand for their intelligence and curiosity. They are known to steal car windshield wipers or rummage through tourists' luggage and steal their passports.

Unfortunately, they are at risk of ingesting lead from humans and other interactions with humans, such as wandering around in traffic. In this new experiment, the researchers wanted to know if the birds could tell the difference between what they see in real life and the images on a computer screen. To find out, they conducted experiments on several birds kept at the Willowbank Wildlife Sanctuary in Christchurch.

In the experiment, some birds were first taught to use their tongues to manipulate objects on a computer screen. Their beaks are made of keratin and are not electrically conductive; therefore, they could not activate the touch screen. Next, they tested the birds' ability to understand a simple game. 

They placed a ball on a table and then tilted the table to one side so that the ball fell into a box on one side of the table. They then challenged the bird to figure out which box the ball was in. The birds mastered the game quickly and without any problems.

The researchers then repeated the experiment virtually on a computer screen. Again, the birds were able to easily select the correct box. However, when the researchers used a virtual table and a virtual ball with real boxes on either side of the computer, the birds became confused - they apparently expected the virtual ball to fall from the virtual table into the real box. 

The researchers noted that similar studies with young children have shown that people, regardless of age, are able to distinguish between real and virtual.