How smart are our robins?
Cognitive research with North Island robins
Take one of the quieter tracks in ZEALANDIA, and it won’t be long before a North Island robin/toutouwai (Petroica longipes) appears to see what you are up to. They’ll perch obligingly on a tree branch while you take a photo, and then they’ll hop down onto the track, sometimes coming right up to your feet if you stand still for long enough.
It is this boldness and curiosity that makes them great subjects for cognitive research, according to biologist Rachael Shaw from Victoria University. She has been testing the intelligence of ZEALANDIA's robins for the past couple of years (I was amazed to learn that she has tested no fewer than eighty of them!). Testing the intelligence of animals in the wild can help us understand how cognition evolves and how it helps animals deal with challenges in their daily lives. I met up with Rachael in ZEALANDIA and she introduced me to a robin called ‘Bruiser’ who lives along the Round the Lake track and is a particularly willing research participant.
Rachael showed me some of the equipment she used for the robin IQ tests – small pieces of wood with holes drilled in them and lids that are hinged over the holes. The robins are trained to open the lids to find mealworms hidden inside the holes. Once they’ve got the hang of that, mealworms are put in some holes while others are left empty. Rachael tests the ability of the robins to remember which holes contain food as a means of understanding how good robins are when it comes to spatial memory. It turns out that they have “prodigious memories and an impressive capacity for learning”, according to Rachael. Bruiser is happy to demonstrate – he’s not used the testing equipment for over two years, and Rachael isn’t sure if he will remember how to open the lids, but he flutters instantly down to the ground and flips them open for the mealworms.
He passes another test with flying colours too – a translucent tube open at each end, with a mealworm inside. Birds will naturally peck at the tube to get at the mealworm, and have to learn that it is open at the ends, but again, Bruiser heads straight for the open end to get his worm. He takes this one up to his mate, Cersi, waiting in a tree above the path. Once she has the worm, she flits back through the trees to their nearby nest.
Rachael is interested in the nest – she’s already checked it to see if the eggs have hatched (they haven’t). Currently she’s monitoring the breeding success of the robins. While her research has shown that some robins seem to be smarter than others, no one knows yet whether more intelligent birds do better when it comes to breeding. At the moment her results suggest that they do, but it is still early days.
Having a good spatial memory is particularly important for robins because they ‘cache’ their food - when they have more food than they can eat in one go (like a large juicy insect), they hide it for later. It’s always useful to be able to remember where you stashed your next meal. I asked Rachael whether robins are particularly smart compared with other birds. “Birds generally are more intelligent than people give them credit for,” she told me, “in fact, bird brains are more tightly packed with neurons compared to mammalian brains”. The caching habits of robins and the demands this places on their spatial memory abilities might well mean they are smarter than similar bird species that don’t do this.
I’d like to think so. They certainly give that impression when they are perched beside you on those tiny wire filament legs, looking inquisitively up at you and very thoroughly checking you out.