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Birds found to plan for the future

Planning and worrying about the future has always been considered an exclusively human activity, but now at least one species of bird has also been found to plan for tomorrow. The finding also raises the intriguing possibility that, like humans, birds may get anxious about the future.

Research published today (22 February) in the journal Nature shows that western scrub-jays are able to plan for future food shortages by caching food. The birds are shown to have learned from their previous experiences of food scarcity, storing food for future use in places where they anticipate future slim pickings. The researchers at the University of Cambridge believe this is the first known example of future planning in animals.

On alternate mornings eight jays were given breakfast in one compartment or refused breakfast in another, before being allowed free access to food the rest of the day. On the sixth day of the experiment they were suddenly given whole pine nuts suitable for caching in the evening. The researchers observed that the jays consistently cached most pine nuts in the tray in the 'no breakfast' compartment, anticipating that they would not be fed in the following morning in that compartment.

Another experiment showed that the birds were able to plan ahead to provide themselves with a more varied diet. The jays were consistently given a breakfast of peanuts in one compartment and dog kibble in the other. When the birds in the evening were offered both foods, they preferred to cache peanuts in the kibble compartment and vice versa - to make sure they had an interesting breakfast the following morning.

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"The jays spontaneously plan for tomorrow, without being motivated by their current needs", said Nicola Clayton, Professor of Comparative Cognition at the University of Cambridge. "People have assumed that animals only have a concept of the present, but these findings show that jays also have some understanding of future events and can plan for future eventualities. The western scrub-jays demonstrate behaviour that shows they are concerned both about guarding against food shortages and maximising the variety of their diets. It suggests they have advanced and complex thought processes as they have a sophisticated concept of past, present and future and factor this into their planning."

Previous research by Clayton's team has shown that scrub-jays have a concept of the past. They remember what they have cached where and how long ago, and they also keep track of which particular bird was watching when they cached so that they can protect their caches accordingly from being stolen by observant thieves.

The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), marks a step forward in our understanding of animal psychology and cognition. This project was also supported with a Medical Research Council (MRC) Cooperative Grant.

Matt Goode | alfa
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