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Tool-use and instrumental learning in the Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius)


Recent research with Rooks has demonstrated impressive tool-using abilities in captivity despite this species’ classification as a non-tool-user in the wild. Here, we explored whether another non-tool-using corvid, the Eurasian Jay, would be capable of similar feats and investigated the relative contributions of causal knowledge and instrumental conditioning to the birds’ performance on the tasks. Five jays were tested on a variety of tasks involving water displacement. Two birds reliably interacted with the apparatuses. In these tasks, both birds showed a preference for inserting stones into a tube containing liquid over a tube containing a solid or a baited ‘empty’ tube and also for inserting sinkable items over non-sinkable items into a tube of water. To investigate the contribution of instrumental conditioning, subjects were then tested on a series of tasks in which different cues were made available. It was found that, in the absence of any apparent causal cues, these birds showed a clear preference for the rewarded tube when the food incrementally approached with every stone insertion, but not when it simply “appeared” after the correct number of stone insertions. However, it was found that subjects did not prefer to insert stones into a tube rewarded by the incremental approach of food if the available causal cues violated the expectations created by existing causal knowledge (i.e. were counter-intuitive). An analysis of the proportion of correct and incorrect stone insertions made in each trial across tasks offering different types of information revealed that subjects were substantially more successful in experiments in which causal cues were available, but that rate of learning was comparable in all experiments. We suggest that these results indicate that Eurasian jays use the incremental approach of the food reward as a conditioned reinforcer allowing them to solve tasks involving raising the water level and that this learning is facilitated by the presence of causal cues.

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    This may have been because on the first trial the wax-worm in the substrate tube escaped from its float and climbed the stones he had dropped, bringing itself into easy reach. He was thus rewarded for putting stones into the substrate tube, perhaps leading him to expect to be able to retrieve a worm from this tube after future stone-drops.

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    Often in fact they would not need to hit it more than once, thus their actions would receive immediate reinforcement.


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We are extremely grateful to Elsa Loissel, Tony Dickinson, Bill McGrew and James Thom for discussion and to Brian McCabe for all his statistical advice, and a special thanks to Nathan Emery for all his help. We also thank Charmaine Donovan and Ivan Vakrilov for caring for the birds and Ian Miller for apparatus construction. Lucy Cheke was funded by an MRC studentship, and Chris Bird was funded by a BBSRC studentship. The studies were funded by grants from the BBSRC and the University of Cambridge.

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Correspondence to Nicola S. Clayton.

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Cheke, L.G., Bird, C.D. & Clayton, N.S. Tool-use and instrumental learning in the Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius). Anim Cogn 14, 441–455 (2011).

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  • Corvid
  • Cognition
  • Instrumental learning
  • Tool-use
  • Physical cognition
  • Archimedes