Parrot project published in scientific journal

Tabor?s parrot-testing team includes, back row (from left) Ashtyn Stephens, with Ziggy perched on her arm, Lauren Brown, holding Keiko on his transport perch, Nik France, who assisted with the project and (seated) instructor Andrew Sensenig. Their results were published this fall in Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, a scholarly journal. Don Ratzlaff / Free PressA pair of Tabor College biology students earned some academic prestige this fall when their report of a class project recently was published in a scholarly journal produced by the Kansas Academy of Science.

Juniors Lauren Brown, from Ridgecrest, Calif., and Ashtyn Stephens, from Midlothian, Texas, decided to find out if the two parrots living in the college?s S.L. Loewen Science Center had sufficient intelligence to exhibit ?object permanence.?

Object permanence is the ability to recognize the existence of an object after it disappears from the senses.

?In the wild, it?s the ability to chase something around a tree and recognize that it?s still there on the other side of the tree,? said instructor Andrew Sen?senig, assistant professor of biology. ?It?s an important trait for many different animals, promoting success in foraging for food or escaping from predators.?

The stars of the project were Keiko, an African grey parrot, and Ziggy, a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot. Both birds were donated to the college within the past three years.Keiko (left photo) and Ziggy (right photo) both achieved Stage 4 on a six-level framework for object permanence, which reflects a high level of intelligence. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

The two Tabor students, assisted by classmate Nik France, a senior, tested both parrots for their ability to choose between two Gator?ade bottle caps after watching a student place pelletized parrot food under one of the caps.

As far as the students knew, neither parrot had prior experience with this kind of choice test.

The parrots were exposed to this test for about 10 minutes each day for two weeks as a training period?to ensure the birds were aware they were making a choice, and to give them practice in flipping bottle caps.

After the two weeks, the students began quantifying the results.

?From the beginning it was just kind of random guessing,? Ashtyn said. ?Then, as we took more data, you could see that they actually were starting to pay attention and choosing wisely.?

Added Lauren: ?We got positive results.?

Both parrots demonstrated object permanence after about 10 days of testing, which was about 25 days after the initial exposure to the bottle caps. On a six-stage scale, Keiko and Ziggy each achieved Stage 4, which means the birds searched for a disappearing object at the site where it disappeared.

An added bonus to the project was that, based on the students? scientific literature review, their experiment may be the first to document object permanence in double yellow-headed Amazon parrots.

?That made our results extra interesting,? Sensenig said.

It was Sensenig who suggested submitting their paper to the Transactions of the Kansas Science Academy for publication. Having it accepted was a breakthrough of a different sort.Team members demonstrate how they performed their experiment with the two parrots. Here, Nik removes the screen that kept Ziggy from seeing from which Gatorade cap Lauren removed the food.

?It?s more common in universities than in small colleges,? Sensenig said about undergraduate student articles making it into print. ?But every once in a while it?s possible for someone from a small college to publish a paper.

?I don?t think it?s been that common at Tabor, recently.?

The object permanence experiments with Keiko and Ziggy are continuing.

?We?re trying to see if (both birds) can reach stages 5 and 6,? Lauren said.

Said Sensenig: ?We?re hiding two different colors of objects, then putting a screen in place and removing one of the colors. We show them the color we removed after the screen is lifted and see if they can infer where the remaining color?s hidden.

?Stage 6 is a really interesting test because it measures high-level cognition. Can they tell an object is under a certain hiding place by inference??

In terms of their career path, the accomplishment of getting a paper published in a scientific journal likely will be of benefit for Brown, who is majoring in biology with the intent of becoming a veterinarian.

Stephens and France intend to teach and coach after they graduate from Tabor.

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