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Birds Have Self-control, Just Like Humans

Top of the class was a bird, JayLo, who ignored a piece of cheese and waited the full five and a half minutes for a mealworm. 

Birds have self-control, just like humans, according to new research.

A study found jays can resist a tempting snack – when they know waiting will bring an even better one.

They were presented with mealworms or bread with cheese – their first and second favorite foods.

All passed the challenge by ignoring the immediately available treat – until a Perspex screen was raised to allow access to the preferred choice.

What is more, the most intelligent did best when a range of delay times tested perseverance.

Top of the class was JayLo, who ignored a piece of cheese and waited the full five and a half minutes for a mealworm.

The worst performers, Dolci and Homer, could only manage a maximum of 20 seconds.

First author Dr. Alex Schnell, of the University of Cambridge, said: “It is just mind-boggling that some jays can wait so long for their favorite food.

“In multiple trials, I sat there watching JayLo ignore a piece of cheese for over five minutes. I was getting bored, but she was just patiently waiting for the worm. The birds looked away from the bread or cheese when it was presented, as if to distract themselves on purpose. Similar behavior has been seen in chimpanzees and children.”

The researchers also presented the jays with five cognitive tasks that measure general intelligence.

Those that performed better also managed to wait longer for the mealworm rewards – linking their self-control to brainpower.

Dr. Schell said: “The birds’ performance varied across individuals – some did really well in all the tasks, and others were mediocre.

“What was most interesting was that if a bird was good at one of the tasks, it was good at all of them – which suggests a general intelligence factor underlies their performance.”

First author Dr. Alex Schnell, of Cambridge University, said: “It is just mind-boggling that some jays can wait so long for their favorite food.

The jays also adjusted their behavior according to circumstances. When the worm was visible but always out of reach, they always ate the bread or cheese.

And the length of time they were willing to wait for the worm fell if it was pitted against their second most preferred food as the immediate treat, compared to their third.

This flexibility shows jays only delay gratification when it is warranted. They belong to the corvid family – which includes equally brainy ravens and crows.

They have been nicknamed the ‘feathered apes’ because they rival non-human primates in their cognitive abilities.

Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) with acorn in beak in autumn. 
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Scientists continue to be astounded by just how clever these avian Einsteins are – having the problem-solving skills of a seven-year-old child.

Corvids hide, or ‘cache’, food to save it for later. In other words, they need to delay immediate gratification to plan for meals.

It may have driven self-control in these birds. It underpins decision-making and planning and fuels intelligence in humans, chimpanzees, and fish.

The results show the link exists across distantly related animal groups – suggesting it has evolved independently several times.

Of all the corvids, jays in particular are vulnerable to having their caches stolen by other birds.

Self-control also enables them to wait for the right moment to hide their food without being seen or heard.

The study, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, involved 10 Eurasian jays, Garrulus glandarius.

It was inspired by the 1972 Stanford Marshmallow Test, in which a US psychologist offered children a choice of one immediately – or two if they waited.

Produced in association with SWNS Talker.

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