Polly Wants a Soggy Cracker

Just as many of us like to dunk biscuits into our tea, some parrots enjoy dipping their crackers.

Researchers noticed Goffin’s cockatoos dropping hard food into their water bowls, presumably to soften it before eating. They were curious to see if this was a one-off. Every day for almost two weeks, they presented the birds with different foods — dried fruit, seeds, rusks, cornflakes, and bird pellets — positioned around their water bowl.

Out of 18 cockatoos, seven of them dipped their food into the bowl. Even more intriguing, they did this for different amounts of time. Each liked its food with a particular level of sogginess.

The most common food to get soaked was the rusk. The twice-baked bread is very hard, and it seems that birds prefer a softer texture. They would pick it up, hop over to the water, and drop it in, sometimes leaving it there for a considerable time until it became adequately soggy. They also occasionally dunked their banana and coconut chips, but never the seeds.

A ‘foraging innovation’

This dunking behavior has never been seen in the wild. The researchers believe that it is a “foraging innovation” — a trick one or more of them thought up.

“To go through all this effort just to change the texture of your food is quite impressive,” said Alice Auersperg, the author of the study.

They would like to follow up by studying whether wild birds do the same thing, but this would be difficult. Goffin cockatoos live on the remote Tanimbar islands of Indonesia. Generally, they feed on seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, and insects. They don’t tend to eat anything as hard as a rusk and don’t always chow down next to a water bowl.

The researchers would also like to figure out how the birds learned this. Did all seven birds independently decide to start dunking their food? Or did they copy it from each other? For now, the researchers continue to observe the same group of birds. If more of them start dipping, then this may be a learned behavior.

Crows and grackles sometimes dunk their food, but this is a first observation for parrots. The birds were in the lab to take part in a completely different set of experiments based on problem-solving. Seeing them do this at meal times was complete chance.

“Sometimes we get gifted with accidental things that just happen,” Dr. Auersperg told The New York Times.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.