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In the World of Parrots, Nerdy Guys Get the Girls

After watching males succeed at a series of puzzling tasks, female birds traded their simple-minded beaus for more cognitively competent partners.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA WondersNOVA Wonders
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Female budgerigars, or parakeets, appear to value mates with mental dexterity—and will even switch their romantic allegiances from one male to another if the latter successfully shows off his smarts. Image Credit: webandi, Pixabay

As humans, we all have our weaknesses—especially when it comes to matters of the heart. Some will search for a set of stunning, soul-piercing eyes; others will hold out for just the right kind of wise-cracking jokester. But in the world of birds, what avian attributes make hot-to-trot females’ hearts go aflutter?

As it turns out, fine-feathered females of the parrot persuasion might assess each male for size—the size of his intellect, that is. According to a new study published today in the journal Science, male parakeets that show off their smarts become more attractive in the eyes of females, even if they’ve already been previously dismissed as less-than-ideal mates.

While previous research has hinted at this cognitive connection, this study is the first to directly point to the allure of acumen. “This is something that the field has been waiting for for a long time,” says Angela Medina-García, an expert in parakeet social behavior at the University of Colorado Boulder who was not involved in the study. “We know females prefer males who sing more elaborate songs, and that requires brains. But here, females actually prefer males who perform a mentally challenging task. That’s groundbreaking.”

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As any parakeet owner can attest, these colorful, pint-sized parrots are as keen as they are mischievous. But the bird cages in which they’re commonly found are far cries from the species’ natural Australian habitat. Native to dry regions that receive little rainfall, parakeets (or budgerigars, as they’re known in most of the world) must deal with frequent shifts in their environment. Unlike many other animals, these birds have only the loosest of breeding seasons; rampant rainfall, and the subsequent growth in vegetation, is what most predictably gets parakeets in the mood, explains Christine Dahlin, a bird biologist who studies parrots at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, but was not involved in the study—making these birds akin to foul-weather friends (with benefits). Dahlin, who has bred budgies, recalls having to constantly mist the birds with water in an effort to rile up their libido.

The unpredictability of their lifestyle means that parakeets need to be both flexible and observant, Dahlin adds. And in Australia’s arid outback, where caches of seeds and insects can be few and far between, it pays to have your wits about you—or, at the very least, a reliable companion who does.

“You need to either discover the tricks of extracting food yourself, or be sensitive to other individuals who are,” says study author Carel ten Cate, an animal behaviorist at Leiden University’s Institute of Biology in the Netherlands. So if anyone stands to benefit from a perceptive partner, it might just be these birds.

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Budgerigars sometimes pair up for extended periods of time in the wild, and are often physically affectionate with each other. Image Credit: Kadisha, Pixabay

To see if this theory panned out, a team of scientists led by Jiani Chen, a behavioral biologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology, engineered a series of heart-wrenching avian love triangles in a flock of young budgies. First, they introduced each female parakeet to two males and allowed her to make an arbitrary choice: The one she spent more time sidling up to was designated the “preferred” male; the male left in the dust, on the other hand, was labeled “less preferred.”

Some of these snubbed suitors were left to sulk. Others, however, were immediately recruited into an intensive brain-boosting boot camp in an attempt to elevate their partnering prospects. For one week, Chen diligently coached the males to open two complex contraptions filled with tasty treats. It was a laborious and time-consuming experiment, she recalls; some of the birds were more amenable to tutoring than others, and the task had been purposefully designed to be difficult. But regardless of each individual’s quirks, Chen saw the birds’ training through to the end.

Once the parakeets’ puzzle-solving skills were up to snuff, Chen reintroduced them to the same females who had passed them over before—only this time, their performance came with props.

As their ladies looked on, the once-rebuffed males handily pried open the containers, while their untrained counterparts (the females’ previous picks) remained flummoxed by the box. At the same time, the females were given their own food-filled contraptions, which had been taped shut, to give them a sense of the arduousness of the chore at hand. And because the puzzle boxes were translucent, the females had ample opportunity to ogle the delicious seeds within—and the preferred males’ stark ineptitude.

Then came the moment of truth. When Chen again asked each female to choose between the boys, the females overwhelmingly shifted their allegiances to the males they’d once scorned. Chen’s mental makeover had worked—and the now-skilled suitors’ displays of mental gymnastics had been enough to reverse the pecking order the females had established just days before.

It’s unclear what initially prompted the female parakeets to pick one male over the other, Chen says. Whatever it was, though, it had some staying power: If the females never witnessed the less-preferred paramour showing off his smarts, they stubbornly stuck to their original choice.

“This makes beautiful sense,” says Dahlin. “The experiment was very clever and well-designed.”

Reflecting on the setup, Chen says she was inspired by parallels she’s seen in human dating. “It’s like they get a first date, and then have some time to get some more experience, and then get another date,” she says. “And that’s helpful for them to make a good decision.”

The fact remains that any experiment done in a lab can’t fully capture what might happen in the wild. For one thing, prying open a plastic container isn’t the same as scrounging for grub outdoors—but Anna Young, a budgerigar expert at Otterbein University who was not involved in the study, thinks Chen’s setup made for a pretty good approximation. “I can see how solving a cognitive task quickly in the lab could be a proxy for being a good forager in the wild,” she says. “You have to be creative when you’re trying to find food.”

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But there’s more to the equation. Obviously, females looking to mate in the wild aren’t just observing the same pair of males over and over, says Medina-García. In natural contexts, males will actively court females, who are anything but passive onlookers. Rather, budgie displays tend to involve a lot of back-and-forth. “At this point, we don’t know if, given the choice to interact with many males, females will still prefer to pair up with or breed with the same males,” she adds.

Additionally, Chen’s setup never observed any actual mating; instead, the researchers used the amount of time females spent near each respective male as a proxy for mate choice, Young points out. (Partitioned into a multi-chambered cage, the birds never even made physical contact; the female simply flitted back and forth between two zones corresponding to her feathered fellas.) Parrots might not have the problem of the friend zone, but quality time doesn’t always translate to offspring production. Chasing after flocks of budgies in the Australian outback to manipulate their mating behavior isn’t exactly easy, but additional work will be necessary to confirm that these behaviors actually lead to bona fide couplings.

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Nothing gets wild parakeets in the mood quite like rainfall; though they're capable of seasonal breeding, they'll also take advantage of weather changes in Australia's arid outback. Image Credit: Eric Kilby, Wikimedia Commons

Whether these findings will hold true in other birds—or more distantly related animals, like humans—remains to be seen. But it’s not terribly difficult to relate to the idea of valuing a potential partner’s intellect… even if it means reneging on a previous commitment.

There’s a reason birds feature so prominently in studies of behavior: These winged wonders are speedy learners and adroit puzzle solvers. Even the internal architecture of their brains bears a striking resemblance to that of primates. “We may need to be more modest about the uniqueness of our own species,” ten Cate says. “I think there are many more parallels in other species—both in mammals and in birds—than people realize.”

Chen, too, feels kinship. “I mean, I would like to have a smart mate,” she says.

For now, what’s clear is this: Nerds are perfectly capable of getting girls—no wingman necessary. And in light of findings like these, it might be high time to acknowledge what a boon a birdbrain can be. “I always tell my students we need to reclaim that term,” Dahlin says. “Once we look closely at the behaviors birds engage in, it’s clear they’re comparable to, if not beyond, the behaviors of mammals.”