Why Kea Needs To Be As Intelligent
Let's talk a little about just why is Kea as bright. It's pretty much what makes us humans as smart as we are (are we though?).
Kea, native to New Zealand and the only alpine parrot in the world, also called the 'Clown of the Alps', is arguably the world’s smartest bird with its intelligence rivaling that of monkeys’, and a lot of studies, including the one conducted by the Department of Cognitive Biology in Vienna, have established this, but what is not quite as well understood are the evolutionary pressures that might have forced Kea to develop the kind of astounding problem-solving and technical abilities it displays so often.
The answer might lie in the combination of two evolutionary factors: One, Kea is a parrot, and parrots are known to generally display remarkable intelligence rivaled only by that of the crow family (the corvids); two, they are the only parrots that have to survive in an alpine environment, where finding food and shelter demands intelligence, which seems to have forced Kea to pull ahead of other parrots and hone additional skills befitting its environment. Kea’s exploratory tendencies and acute curiosity might have developed in response to the environmental challenges it came to face.
It’s for good reason that Kea is called the “Clown of the Alps” or the “Clever Clown of the Mountains”, for it has the tendency to thoroughly investigate unfamiliar things, such as backpacks, skis, snowboards and cars in general, and the thoroughness of its curiosity-driven probes are sometimes destructive because they tend to deploy their sharp beaks for the purpose, damaging the object under investigation. And when on-the-spot investigation fail to result in satisfactory outcome, Kea are known to confiscate the object and fly way to conduct further investigation probably in the peace and comfort of their avian laboratory located on some distant peak. Or, where the object is as big as a car, it might return to reapply its beak to the vulnerable parts, resulting in unwelcome damage to the object, to the understandable annoyance of the owner. Such behaviour explains why Kea are also frequently described as “cheeky”.
Natural curiosity and a daring spirit of exploration are two other factors that might have contributed to Kea’s extraordinary intelligence because environmental challenges do not quite explain it, for a study by the researchers at the University of Vienna found that Kea quickly learned the use of stick-like tool by observation to access a food-reward even though Kea do not use any stick-like material to build their nests and have no use for such objects in their regular environment. That means they do not have what the paper called “an ecological predisposition to handle elongated objects”. In other words, Kea is capable of general intelligence outside its environmental demands, which arms it with innovative problem-solving skills.
Such general intelligence with quick-learning capability could not have developed without the immense curiosity that Kea displays in its engagement with humans as well as the new objects it encounters. Although further studies are still being conducted into the exact trajectory of the evolution of Kea’s extraordinary intelligence, one can safely conclude that it was environmental demands coupled with Kea’s natural curiosity that supplied the necessary evolutionary impetus for Kea to develop the mental capabilities it is widely celebrated for. An intriguing question might be, if the natural curiosity, being natural, was itself a response to the environmental demands placed on Kea by virtue of receding habitat, among other things. We’ll have to wait for the scientists to find out.
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