Birds and Children Both Solve Aesop's Puzzle

By Chelsea Whyte on July 26, 2012 8:29 PM EDT

eurasian jay
Eurasian Jays may be smart, but they can't outsmart kids when it comes to imagining the impossible. (Photo: Creative Commons: omarrun)

Aesop's fable tells of a thirsty crow that comes upon a pitcher with a small amount of water in it, and figures out that dropping stones in the pitcher will raise the level of water and allow the bird to quest its thirst.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge previously showed that rooks, a member of the crow family, can indeed solve this puzzle, and can even distinguish between useful objects to raise the water and those that won't do the job as well - i.e. corks will float on the surface while pebbles will sink and raise the water level.

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Now, Lucy Cheke, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge's Department of Experimental Psychology, has devised a test to compare a child's ability at this task to the birds. The clever birds performed as well as the children in the study in two tasks mimicking Aesop's fable, but Cheke found that when the mechanism of the test was hidden from view, children outsmarted the wily birds.

"We wanted to find out what, and how, the birds were learning. Was it intuition, simple trial and error, or did the birds understand something of the laws of physics?" Cheke told BBC News. She wanted to know if the birds were simply solving the logical problem, or whether - like children - they had a wider understanding of the possible.

Using Eurasian Jays, she set up three experiments. The first had two tubes half filled respectively with sawdust or water. The subject - bird or child - was given objects to insert into any tube in order to receive the prize sitting atop the sawdust or water. Obviously, dropping objects into sawdust does little to bring a reward closer to the surface of a tube, and both children and birds were able to determine which tube to work with in order to get a prize.

The second test was the original test the rooks passed, with one tube of water holding a reward and several objects that would float or sink offered to the children and the birds. Again, both sets of participants managed to pass this test.

But the third experiment baffled the birds, while the children were able to retrieve the prize. Embedded in an opaque base were a U-shaped tube with a wide arm and a narrow arm, and one single straight tube. From above, it appeared that there were three separate tubes. Both the U-shaped tube and straight tube were filled equal amounts of water and the prize was inside the narrow arm of the U-shaped tube.  

To successfully retrieve the prize, the subject was forced to pick one of the wider tubes on either side in which to place an object to displace water. Because the join of the U-shaped tube was hidden, it appeared that placing an object in one of the wide tubes would inexplicably cause the level of water to rise in the narrow tube.

Children were able to complete the task, while the Jays were stymied by the apparatus.

"This makes sense because it is children's job to learn about new cause and effect relationships without being limited by ideas of what is or is not possible," Cheke said. "The children were able to learn what to do to get the reward even if the chain-of-events was apparently impossible. Essentially, they were able to ignore the fact that it shouldn't be happening to concentrate on the fact that it was happening. The birds however, found it much harder to learn what was happening because they were put off by the fact that it shouldn't be happening."

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