RESEARCHERS in York say the behaviour of crows and parrots show they learn how to use objects and solve problems by playing - the same as human babies.

A study, led by researchers at the Universities of York and St Andrews, discovered that New Caledonian crows and kea parrots can learn about the usefulness of objects by playing with them.

The researchers found both types of bird could solve tasks more successfully if they had spent time playing with the object they would need to use beforehand.

Dr Katie Slocombe, from the University of York’s Department of Psychology, said the results showed the birds learned in much the same way as human children.

Dr Slocombe said: “Both species of bird are known for exploring objects in different ways.

“The New Caledonian crow uses objects in the wild and the kea parrot is known for often being destructive in its play back in its native New Zealand.

“We found that both species were better at selecting the correct tools to solve a task if they had the opportunity to explore them beforehand, suggesting that they were learning something about the properties of them as they interacted with them.”

Researchers had long thought that ‘playful exploration’ helped animals to gather information about their physical world, just as human infants learn about their world through play.

The new research is one of the first direct tests of this hypothesis, and the team presented the birds with blocks and ropes of different colours, weights and patterns to explore and play with, before giving them a task where they had to collapse a platform with a ball and get a reward from a pipe with a stick.

The ball and stick were later replaced with the blocks and ropes to see whether they could choose the right tool from their earlier play session to complete the task.

The researchers now think that applying the same simple test to other species could shed more light on the different functions of play and exploration and how it helps tool use and problem solving.

Megan Lambert, PhD student at the University of York, said: “This type of ‘latent learning’, which occurs without any reinforcement, is thought to be particularly important for animals to be able to use objects as tools in a variety of contexts for creative problem-solving.

“Although the birds appeared to learn from their exploration, we found no evidence that the birds changed the way they interacted with the objects after learning they could be used as tools. This means that the birds did not appear to explicitly seek information about the objects, but rather learned about their properties incidentally through exploring them.”

The research was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.