Can you teach an old parrot new tricks?

Age may be just a number, but according to research on kākā by PhD candidate Julia Loepelt, older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser.

Julia Loepelt with Kaka
A kākā looks over Julia’s research at Zealandia. Photo: Judi Miller.

In collaboration with Dr Rachael Shaw and Associate Professor Kevin Burns from Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences, Julia’s research shows younger kākā are better at problem-solving than their older counterparts.

Julia says studying problem-solving abilities in the wild is vital to help us understand how animals deal with changing environments.

“Our study shows that the younger kākā outperform adult kākā across a variety of tasks and contexts,” she says.

“We tested the cognitive skills of more than 100 wild kākā ranging in age from four months to 13 years. Of the 24 birds that participated in all three of our problem-solving tasks, juveniles were the most efficient problem-solvers in all three tasks.”

The tasks, carried out at eco-sanctuary Zealandia, involved pulling out a wooden block, flipping a lid and pulling a string to access food.

“With the first experiment, the juvenile kākā pulled the block out in their first to fourth trial, whereas it took the older kākā up to 11 attempts. No kākā over the age of three was able to solve this problem.”

The study, which was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, shows that younger kākā are more explorative and persistent than adults.

“These traits may be particularly beneficial to young kākā, helping them to learn about their environment and discover new strategies to find food.”

Victoria University of Wellington signed a memorandum of understanding with Zealandia in 2016, further enabling university students such as Julia to be at the forefront of research into New Zealand’s unique biodiversity.