Cockatoos Pass The Marshmallow Test, Sort Of


In the classic marshmallow test, a treat is place before a child who is told if they don’t eat it and instead wait until an experimenter returns, they’ll get two treats. About a third of four-year olds can make it through the minutes that follow without eating the marshmallow. Some primates, dogs and corvids have also passed similar delayed gratification tests, but monkeys, rodents and most other birds — including the African grey parrot, famed for its intelligence — have failed.

The Goffin’s cockatoo has also shown signs of intelligence; like corvids, this bird has been found to be a capable toolmaker. So how’s its self control? Researchers from the University of Vienna gave it a test and publish their results this week in Biology Letters.

The setup was even more challenging than the marshmallow test: A bird was presented with a pecan nut, which it had to pick up and hold in its mouth. Then either more nuts or a better nut, like a cashew, were shown to the bird, just out of reach. If the bird held the pecan without eating it, it would be given the other treat.

“Imagine placing a cookie directly into a toddler’s mouth and telling him, he will only receive a piece of chocolate if the cookie is not nibbled for over a minute,” the study’s lead author Alice Auersperg said in a statement.

Most of the cockatoos put to the test could hold out for two or five seconds. Half made it to 40 seconds, and a few made it to 80 seconds. None lasted to 160 seconds, the greatest amount of time tested. The birds were more successful in holding out for the cashew than for more food.

This is the first time a parrot species (cockatoos are parrots) has managed to pass a test of delayed gratification. Toddlers have them beat for time, but perhaps someone should try stuffing the marshmallow into a kid’s mouth to see if they really could hold out longer than a bird.

Image copyright Dr. Alice Auersperg, courtesy of the Royal Society

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