Maybe what Polly wants is a new toy

From Boise, Idaho, at a meeting of the Animal Behavior Society

SCARY STUFF? Young, hand-raised orange-winged Amazons cope with novelty better initially than parent-raised birds do. Fox

Changing the toys frequently in a parrot’s cage may reduce the bird’s tendency to fear new things. Bird keepers grow anxious as their birds fidget, sometimes plucking their own feathers, says Rebecca Fox of the University of California, Davis. The fearfulness, or neophobia, also raises questions about bird development.

Research in rats linked neophobia to early separation from Mom, but experiments found no such link for parrots. Other studies even showed that nestlings fed by people were less afraid of new things until age 6 months than were birds reared by their parents. The effect doesn’t last, though, and the hand-reared birds by 1 year of age show the typical neophobia.

Fox wondered whether hand rearing delayed neophobia because it exposed birds to extra novelty. Fox and James R. Millam of U.C.–Davis divided 32 young orange-winged Amazon parrots into two groups. For one group, she replaced two novel objects in their cages five times a week; parrots in the other group kept the same toys. After 11 weeks, she switched treatments.

To measure neophobia, she filled a dish with peanuts and apples, a treat that she calls “the Amazon equivalent of chocolate,” then dangled an unfamiliar object above it and timed a bird’s delay in approaching. The weeks of frequent toy changing brought a “moderate but significant” easing of neophobia, she reports. The frequent-change birds approached in about 6 minutes instead of 10 minutes.

Fox also found that some objects provoked more reaction than others. Of the 15 doodads she had purchased, three–a little stuffed pink elephant, a black plastic box, and a mesh shower puff–proved too scary to use in the experiments. “Not all novelty is equal,” Fox says.


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Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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