Kea show smarts like chimps, elephants and children

Kea have a reputation for being intelligent, but a new study gives a glimpse of just how smart they are, being compared to chimpanzees and elephants in collaborative problem solving.

The native bird has even shown similar behaviours to human children, according to a new Auckland University study just published in the PLOS One journal.

Researchers spent months at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch training the birds to use the intelligence tests and it turned up some interesting results.

"We gave kea a similar problem to one that's been given to a number of different animal species including chimpanzees and elephants which tries to understand whether animals can work together, and if they can…whether they understand anything about how cooperation works," co-author Dr Alex Taylor told Newshub.

The birds were released into an apparatus in which they were separated by wire mesh with a board outside the area with a piece of food on each side.

kea auckland university intelligent
If the birds worked together, they got the reward (Supplied)

If they both pulled the string attached to the board, the food would come close enough to eat; if only one bird did, neither would get their treat.

Dr Taylor said the birds showed good self-control, waiting for their partner for up to 65 seconds.

kea auckland university
They were willing to wait more than a minute for their partner in crime (Supplied)

Chimpanzees and elephants haven't been tested in similar circumstances for longer than a minute.

"You could see during that time they'd try and distract themselves, they'd be gnawing at the wood of the apparatus, they'd be looking at the top of the apparatus.

"They don't want to pull the string until the other kea is released," Dr Taylor said.

It showed the birds "can wait to do an action until the time is right".

He was surprised at the birds' ability to recognise whether they needed assistance particularly because their brains are much smaller than chimpanzees.

It is the first conclusive evidence birds know they need another's help and when they can go it alone.

One bird in particular, Neo, even preferred working with another of his kind even given the choice to get the food on his own.

kea auckland university
The test was set up to allow one bird to complete the task, but one preferred to have a mate (Supplied)

Dr Taylor says that's a behaviour seen in human children, but not in chimpanzees.

"In terms of exactly what's going on in their minds, it may be the kea are thinking about it in a different way to children are, but on the behavioural level to see that similarity between children and kea about wanting to work together is cool for me."

Dr Taylor says while the results are exciting, he believes this is just the beginning in terms of understanding how intelligent the birds are.

"What the kea have done is intriguing, they're giving a hint or a glimpse they've got some pretty serious smarts."

He even believes getting to know them better could lead to better conservation efforts to try save the endangered species, normally found in the South Island's alpine areas.