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Discriminating hornbills think like us

13 August 2009

A study carried out by a Cardiff University student at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park has helped shed new light on the way birds think.

Helen Gath, a zoology student at Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences, spent a year on research placement with the Field Conservation and Research Department of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, based at Paignton Zoo in Devon, conducting a study into bird cognition and visual learning.

Helen worked with one pair of Abyssinian ground hornbills and one pair of Von der Decken’s hornbills, using a wooden poke box featuring a series of compartments with paper covers. The covers had symbols on them that varied in colour, shape and pattern. The birds learnt to associate a particular combination of these with a reward of mealworm, poking their bills through the paper to find their treats. By using different combinations, Helen was able to discover how the birds made their choices.

Paignton Zoo spokesperson Phil Knowling said: "Animals rely on discrimination for survival – they need to recognise mates, predators and food. They have to select from the vast amount of information in their environment. To do this they use a sorting strategy. Animals sort either in a multidimensional way – using more than one variable – or a unidimensional way – using just one variable."

The results suggested hornbills tend to sort by one variable – colour. When the shapes and patterns differed, the birds chose symbols that were the same colour as the symbol that gave them the treat. This is the technique that most humans use. Pigeons and squirrels select in a multidimensional way but humans are more likely to make unidimensional choices.

Zoo research officer Kirsten Pullen, who supervised Helen’s work, said: "This is an important step forward. This mental process has never been tested in hornbills before and increases our understanding of these very special birds. We need to repeat the experiment with other hornbills to see if they show the same results."

Philip Knowling

Press Officer

Paignton Zoo Environmental Park

01803 697568

Jessica Kelly

Public Relations Office

Cardiff University

029 2087 0298