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Birds found to plan future meals

Feb. 21, 2007
Courtesy University of Cambridge
and World Science staff

Some birds plan out fu­ture meals, re­search­ers re­port, in the lat­est of a se­ries of find­ing be­lieved to help map the ex­tent of fore­thought in non-human an­i­mals.

The West­ern scrub jay, Aph­e­lo­coma cal­i­for­nia. (Cour­te­sy Ar­i­zo­na Game & Fish.)


The study in­volved west­ern scrub jays, who were the ob­ject of a si­m­i­lar in­ves­ti­ga­tion last year. That work found that the jays would look over their wings while stor­ing food, wary of oth­er birds who might pil­fer their stash. Based on who was watch­ing them, if an­y­one, they would de­cide wheth­er to move the goods else­where to avoid theft.

The new stu­dy, pub­lished in the Feb. 22 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Na­ture, found that the jays al­so plan fu­ture meals to en­sure a var­ied di­et.

Each morn­ing, eight scrub-jays were let in­to one of two com­part­ments: ei­ther with break­fast, or with­out. They were then fed for the rest of the day. 

Af­ter sev­er­al days, the birds were al­so giv­en pine nuts suit­a­ble for cach­ing (hoard­ing) in the eve­ning. In an­ti­ci­pa­tion of a morn­ing with­out break­fast, the scrub-jays con­sist­ent­ly hid food in the “no break­fast” rath­er than the “break­fast” com­part­ment, show­ing a rath­er de­tailed un­der­stand­ing of fu­ture needs, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers, Nicky Clay­ton and col­leagues at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge, U.K.

In a sec­ond ex­per­i­ment, the birds re­ceived for break­fast ei­ther dog food in one com­part­ment, or pea­nuts in a sec­ond. When they were al­lowed to cache ei­ther food at will in the eve­nings, they moved to en­sure a var­ied fu­ture di­et: they hoarded pea­nuts in the dog food com­part­ment and dog kib­ble in the pea­nut cham­ber, the re­search­ers said.

The be­hav­ior “shows they are con­cerned both about guard­ing against food short­ages and max­imis­ing the va­ri­e­ty of their di­ets in the fu­ture,” Clay­ton said. “It sug­gests they have ad­vanced and com­plex thought pro­cesses as they have a so­phis­ti­cat­ed con­cept of past, pre­s­ent and fu­ture, and fac­tor this in­to their plan­ning.”


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Some birds plan out future meals, researchers report, in the latest of a series of finding believed to help map the extent of forethought in non-human animals. The study involved western scrub jays, who were the object of a similar invest igation last year. That work found that the jays would look over their wings while storing food, wary of other birds who might pilfer their stash. Based on who was watching them, if anyone, they would decide whether to move the goods elsewhere to avoid theft. The new study, published in the Feb. 22 issue of the research journal Nature, found that the jays also plan future meals to ensure a varied diet. Each morning, eight scrub-jays were let into one of two compartments: either with breakfast, or without. They were then fed for the rest of the day. After several days, the birds were also given pine nuts suitable for caching (hoarding) in the evening. In anti cipation of a morning without breakfast, the scrub-jays consistently hid food in the “no breakfast” rather than the “breakfast” compartment, showing a rather detailed understanding of future needs, according to the researchers, Nicky Clayton and colleagues at the University of Cambridge, U.K. In a second experiment, the birds received for breakfast either dog food in one compartment, or peanuts in a second compartment. When they were allowed to cache either food at will in the evenings, they showed a wish for a varied future diet: they hoarded peanuts in the dog food compartment and dog kibble in the peanut chamber, the researchers said. The behavior “shows they are concerned both about guarding against food shortages and maximising the variety of their diets in the future,” Clayton said. “It suggests they have advanced and complex thought processes as they have a sophisticated concept of past, present and future, and factor this into their planning.”