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Why scientists tested to see which birds are the brainiest

The research team believes the findings can support new conservation strategies.

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By Stephen Beech via SWNS

Testing birds to find out which are the brainiest could play a key role in saving critically endangered species, according to new research.

Scientists analyzed how well different captive Bali myna birds - of which there are fewer than 50 remaining in the wild - tackled problem-solving tasks and responded to the presence of new objects and types of food.

The research team believes the findings can support new conservation strategies - such as the pre-release training of birds and identifying specific birds for release.

Study leader Dr. Rachael Miller, of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), alongside colleagues at Cambridge University and the National University of Singapore, examined levels of 'neophobia' - the fear of new things - in 22 captive Bali myna birds.

They measured how well individual birds responded to the presence of new objects and types of food, in addition to how well they tackled simple problem-solving tasks.

The researchers believe that gathering such types of behavioral data can aid in new conservation strategies.

(Photo by Thakur Dalip Singh via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Miller explained that behavioral flexibility is crucial for an individual’s adaptability and survival, and so pre-release training and identifying specific birds for release could help with the successful reintroduction of endangered species, such as the Bali myna, into the wild.

The study was conducted over a six-week period at three UK zoological collections – Waddesdon Manor, Cotswolds Wildlife Park and Gardens, and Birdworld.

The researchers found overall that birds took longer to touch familiar food when a novel item was present.

Dr. Miller said: "Age was a key factor in the behavior displayed, with adult birds proving to be more neophobic than juveniles."

The researchers also discovered that the birds that quickly touched familiar food that was placed beside a new object were also the quickest to solve problem-solving tasks.

The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, is part of a larger project led by Dr. Miller, a lecturer in animal behavior at ARU, aiming to combine avian cognition and behavior research with conservation, to help threatened species.

Dr. Miller said: “Neophobia can be useful in that it can help birds avoid unfamiliar dangers, but it can also impact their adaptation to new environments, such as through an increased reluctance to approach new foods.

“An understanding of behavioral flexibility, specifically how species and individuals within that species respond to novelty and approach new problems, is vital for conservation, particularly as the world is becoming increasingly urbanized.

"Many species need to adapt to human-generated environmental changes and how an animal responds to novelty can predict post-release outcomes during reintroductions.

“We selected the Bali myna for this study specifically because they are on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 50 adults in the wild in Indonesia, but there is a captive breeding program of almost 1,000 birds in zoos around the world.

“As part of active conservation of the Bali myna, there is a need to continually release birds to try to boost the small, wild population.

"Now we have data on the behavioral flexibility of these birds, this can help to inform which birds may be best suited for reintroduction.

"Our study has already identified that releasing juvenile Bali myna may potentially be more successful than releasing adult birds, at least in terms of adaptability to new environments."

Dr. Miller added: “Our data can also help with developing training before release, where captive birds may learn to increase fear responses to traps or people if they were to be introduced in areas where poaching takes place, or to decrease neophobia by exposure to unfamiliar safe food sources in areas with low resources.

"We believe the overall project findings will be able to help not just the Bali myna, but hopefully many other endangered species.”

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