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The bird that’s as brainy as a child

London - It’s a suggestion that will give pause for thought to even the proudest of parents.

For no matter how bright they believe their son or daughter is, until the age of seven, children are, at least in some respects, no brainier than birds.

Eurasian jay. Picture: CharlesLam, flickr.com. Credit: flickr.com

In simple experiments, birds did just as well as children up until the age of seven. Researchers pitted birds against boys and girls using tests inspired by the Aesop’s fable in which a thirsty crow is able to drink from a pitcher after using pebbles to raise the water level to within its reach.

In two of the three tests at Cambridge University, the birds – Eurasian jays – did just as well as the seven-year-old children.

After this, the human mind proved superior to the bird brain.

The experiments built on earlier work in which jays quickly learned that adding stones to a cylinder half-filled with water would bring a tasty treat floating on the surface within reach of their beaks. In a second task the jays – colourful members of the crow family and about the same size as jackdaws – realised it was better to use pebbles, which sink, than corks, which float.

When Cambridgeshire children, aged four to ten, were set similar tasks, they did as well as the jays on the first, up to the age of seven.

From the age of eight, the pupils learned more quickly than the birds. The pattern was similar with the second task – except four-year-old children did worse than the jays. However, a third, more complex, task separated the youngsters from the birds. It again involved dropping objects into water to raise its level. But this time, a U-shaped tube was used, with the join at its bottom hidden, giving the impression it was two separate tubes.

It meant dropping a stone into one ‘tube’ led to the water rising in the “other” – a counter-intuitive result. This appeared to confuse the birds. However, the children did as well as before, the journal PLoS ONE reports. The researchers said this shows children are better at putting preconceptions aside.

Lucy Cheke, a PhD student, said: “It is a child’s job to learn about the world. They can’t do that if they’re limited by a preconceived idea about what is or is not possible.

“For a child, if it works, it works. The birds, however, found it much harder to learn what was happening because they were put off by the fact it shouldn’t be happening.” - Daily Mail

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