How Does Your Self-Control Fare Against Great Tits'?

A great tit (Photo: Francis Franklin, Wikimedia Commons)

Great tits appear to have nearly as much self-control as chimpanzees, if a new experiment’s results are accurate. They might even have more self-control than the humans who still make jokes about the name “great tit”.

Research continues to demonstrate that many birds are highly intelligent. Magpies can pass the mirror test, pigeons can navigate over incredible distances, ravens can plan for future events, crows can craft tools from memory — the list goes on.

New research demonstrates that even a tiny bird, the great tit, exhibits behaviour that we typically link with intelligence: Inhibition.

“The great tit, a small song bird that is very good at learning, performs almost in level with chimpanzees and ravens in this test,” the authors from Lund University in Sweden write in the study published in Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology.

The researchers captured 36 wild great tits, a common European bird, and brought them to the testing facility. They first taught the birds to eat food out of an opaque cylinder. Then, they acquainted some of the birds with a transparent cylinder or a transparent wall inside their cage. Others were tested without the experimenters showing the birds transparent things.

For each trial, the birds received a transparent cylinder different from any of the objects they previously experienced in training. The cylinder had an opening on the end and a mealworm inside. If the bird’s first move was to peck the wall of the cylinder, it failed the test. If its first move was to go to the side and snag the mealworm without touching the wall, it passed.

Scientists use this test as a measure of self-control, or at least inhibition, because it “requires inhibitory skills to overcome immediate motor responses,” according to the paper. It isn’t the only test of animal self control; others experiments include seeing whether an animal will pass up a small reward for in order to get a bigger one.

Over 10 trials, great tits that had seen transparent cylinders before passed the test 80 per cent of the time, while those that hadn’t passed 61 per cent of the time.

An 80 per cent success rate is higher than most other bird species for the same test, though not as good as corvids (birds such as crows and magpies). Sixty-one per cent is still higher than birds with similarly-sized or larger brains, such as song or swamp sparrows.

There are obvious limitations to a study such as this. It was in a lab, not the wild; it required a training element; and it only involved three dozen birds from one location. But the biggest limitation is that a lot of birds fail the trial the first time.

“The researchers let the birds perform the task 10 times, and use the percentage of times out of 10 that they succeed as their metric,” Ben Freeman, postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia who was not involved in the study, told Gizmodo. “Most of the birds fail at this task the first time or two, but then learn to stop bumping their beak into the tubing.”

It’s still a useful tool for comparing between birds, but might say more about learning than self-control.

These issues aside, the experiment still shows something important about bird intelligence. Great tits are tiny and have brains only around 0.44cm3 in volume, a bit larger than a pea.

“This study does show that the ‘bigger is better’ idea is not ironclad — here is a bird that weighs less than 10 pennies, and it is better at this task than lemurs are,” said Freeman. Perhaps brain size isn’t a useful measurement when comparing birds and mammals.

It’s tough to truly tell how smart other animals are, since we can’t know what’s really going on inside of their brains. But when it comes to a standardised test of inhibition, great tits seem to come out near the top.

[Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology]

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