Technology & Science

Jays pick the right gift for their valentine

A Eurasian jay can figure out what will make the perfect present for his girlfriend if he knows what she's already received, suggesting he can imagine what's going through her mind.

Experiment suggests jays can imagine themselves in another bird's place

A Eurasian jay can figure out what will make the perfect present for his girlfriend if he knows what she's already received, suggesting he can imagine what's going through her mind.

The ability to put yourself in someone else's place and understand what he or she wants is considered an advanced cognitive skill and previously thought to be unique to humans.

But the new results of an experiment by a group of Cambridge University psychologists, show that some "bird brains" may share the talent. The study was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Male Eurasian jays court females by giving them tasty gifts, not unlike the chocolates that are sometimes presented to human females as part of courtship rituals.

"In jay world, it's really all about the worms," said Nicola Clayton, a professor of comparative cognition at Cambridge University who co-authored the research, in an interview with Quirks & Quarks Saturday. "They have a particular penchant for worms — waxworms and mealworms."

But sometimes they might prefer a waxworm to a mealworm, under the right conditions.

Clayton likened that to what humans experience after eating a large main course.

"The dessert trolley comes along and all of a sudden, even though you were full, you manage to find room for the tiramisu or the cheesecake," she said. "Well, we're not alone. It happens to jays too."

The researchers showed that female jays prefer mealworms if they have just eaten a large number of waxworms, and vice versa.

The researchers decided to test whether male jays could guess their mate's preferences and cater to them.

Understanding motivations

They allowed the male jays to choose a present for their mates — either a waxworm or a mealworm — after watching her eat either waxworms or mealworms.

The male tended to give his mate a mealworm if he had seen her eating waxworms. But if he saw her eating mealworms, he tended to give her a waxworm.

If he wasn't allowed to see what she had eaten, he appeared to choose his gift more randomly, suggesting that the female did not communicate her desire to him, and he was indeed guessing what she wanted based on his observations.

Clayton said the results suggest a male jay chooses the right gift for his mate, given enough information, "because he understands something about her motivations."

"I think people have underestimated the intelligence of some birds," she said. "We're arguing that these birds in particular are not bird brains, but brainy birds."