, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 62-71

Testing social learning in a wild mountain parrot, the kea (Nestor notabilis)


Huber, Taborsky, and Rechberger (2001) reported an experiment in which the efficiency with which captive keas opened a complex food container was increased by observation of a skilled conspecific. However, only testing social learning in free-ranging animals can demonstrate social learning in natural conditions. For that purpose, a tube-lifting paradigm was developed and tested on keas both in captivity and in Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand. The task was to remove a tube from an upright pole in order to gain access to a reward inside the tube. The top of the pole was higher than a standing kea, so that, to remove the tube, an individual had to simultaneously climb onto the pole and manipulate the tube up the pole with its bill. Because only 1 naive bird managed to remove a tube twice in 25 halfhour sessions and disappeared after success, another bird was trained to solve the task and to provide demonstrations for others. Even under such conditions, only 2 of at least 15 birds learned to remove the tube in 28 sessions. There was no indication that observer birds’ use of bill and feet when exploring the tube changed as the number of observations of tube removal increased in a way that would, in principle, increase the likelihood of tube removal. The results suggest a dissociation of social learning potential as assessed in laboratory animals, and social transmission of foraging techniques in natural populations.

This study was financed by the Austrian Science Fund (BIO P15027). Banding permission was received from the Department of Conservation of New Zealand (CHH 12/129 and CA/282/FAU). We are grateful for the assistance and support of the Department of Conservation of New Zealand, especially that of Ray Bellringer, Phil Crutchley, and Kerry Weston from the Mount Cook Area Office and Andy Grant from the Christchurch Conservancy Off ice. Thanks to Robert Jackson for contacts within New Zealand, to Bernhard Voelkl and M.Tuulia Ortner for their help in the field, and to M. Tuulia Ortner for her additional contribution to the design of the test apparatus. Thanks also to Jeff Galef and an unknown referee for comments on the manuscript.