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Limited spread of innovation in a wild parrot, the kea (Nestor notabilis)

Abstract

In the local population of kea in Mount Cook Village, New Zealand, some keas open the lids of rubbish bins with their bill to obtain food scraps within. We investigated the extent to which this innovation has spread in the local population, and what factors limit the acquisition of bin opening. Only five males of 36 individually recognised birds were observed to have performed successful bin opening. With one exception there were always other keas present, watching successful bin opening. Seventeen additional individuals were seen to have benefitted from lid opening. Their foraging success was less than that of the bin openers. Social status of bin openers did not differ from scrounging males. Among the individuals that were regularly seen at the site of the bins but were not successful in bin opening, social status and the ratio of feeding directly from open bins correlated with the amount of opening attempts. We conclude that scrounging facilitated certain behavioural aspects of bin opening rather than inhibiting them. The fact that only 9% of opening attempts were successful, and the long period of time required to increase efficiency in lid opening shows that mainly individual experience, and to a lesser extent insight and social learning, play key roles in acquisition of the opening technique. The results indicate that the spread of innovative solutions of challenging mechanical problems in animals may be restricted to only a few individuals.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful for the assistance and support of the Department of Conservation of New Zealand, especially Ray Bellringer, Phil Crutchley and Kerry Weston from the Mount Cook Area Office and Andy Grant from the Christchurch Conservancy Office. We also thank DOC volunteers from the Mount Cook Visitor Centre, and Rachel Johnston and Miriam Studer for their help in the field, Hans Winkler for comments on the manuscript, Miriam Locher and Jonathan Daisley for improving the English. 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).

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Correspondence to Gyula K. Gajdon.

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Gajdon, G.K., Fijn, N. & Huber, L. Limited spread of innovation in a wild parrot, the kea (Nestor notabilis). Anim Cogn 9, 173–181 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-006-0018-7

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Keywords

  • Innovation
  • Physical cognition
  • Social learning
  • Scrounging