Did you know that birds can plan their next day’s breakfast?

A western scrub-jay

Many people think that only humans know about and plan for the future. They see animal behaviour that is useful for the future, like squirrels hiding nuts in autumn, as innate (instinctive). However, experiments show that animals can plan also in situations they would never experience in the wild.

For example, the western scrub-jays (North American birds related to crows) can plan ahead as far as their next day’s breakfast.

The experiments (which I will explain below) may seem complicated, but that’s precisely the point, to force the birds to use their cognitive abilities and not act instinctively. And I invite you to imagine you are a scrub-jay and play along as though you were taking part in the experiment.

Each bird was housed in a room that was divided into three compartments (see illustration below). The middle part was available the whole time. Every morning only one of the side compartments (kitchens) was opened, with each kitchen available every second day. In kitchen 1 there was always breakfast waiting, but in kitchen 2 there was never anything to eat. Therefore, every second day, the jays were hungry in the morning. A few hours later the other kitchen was also opened. From then, the food was freely available until evening.

Scrub-jays are famous for caching (hiding) food for later, but during most of the experiment they only got powdered peanuts that there were not able to cache.

After six days, after the birds had gotten used to the situation, they were given whole nuts in the evening, which they could store in ice-cube trays filled with corn cob placed in both kitchens.

If you were a western scrub-jay, where would you hide the food?

The birds hid most of the nuts in the same place that I expect most people would   – in the breakfast-free kitchen.

So, maybe they cached the food because they just love doing so, and did it in the place in which they experienced hunger (some other animals are known to do that) and it was just an instinctive behaviour?

A second experiment gives a strong indication that the western scrub-jays actually planned their breakfast. The basic setup of the experiment was the same, but now one kitchen provided powdered nuts and the other powdered dry dog food (this may sound weird but these birds like both types of food). On the evening of the sixth day, they got whole nuts and dog kibble.

What did the birds do? They hid more nuts in the “dog-food kitchen” and more dog food in the “nuts kitchen”. This way they had a multiple breakfast options, no matter which kitchen was open.

Not only humans like a varied breakfast, and can plan ahead to ensure it!

Experimental cage

Western scrub-jay’s photo from Msulis at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Common Good using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6658580


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