Male Eurasian jays know that their female partners' desires can differ from their own

Mar 25, 2014
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius). Credit: Luc Viatour/Wikipedia

Knowing what another person wants is not a trivial issue, particularly when the other's desires are different from our own. The ability to disengage from our own desire to cater to someone else's wishes is thought to be a unique feature of human cognition.

New research challenges this assumption. Despite wanting something different to eat, male Eurasian jays can disengage from their own current desire in order to feed the female what she wants even when her desires are different to his. The study, which was funded by the BBSRC, is published today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

"We found that males could respond to the female's desire even when their own desire was conflicting. That said, the males were also partially biased by what they wanted – a bias similar to one commonly found in human children and adults," said Dr Ljerka Ostojić, who led the University of Cambridge study.

For the study, nine male-female pairs of Eurasian jays (a member of the Corvid family) from two colonies were tested during the breeding season – the only time when jays share food. To manipulate what food the males and the females desired, the researchers used a phenomenon termed 'specific satiety' – after eating a particular food item to satiety, jays prefer to eat a novel food item that they are not currently sated on.

Once a day the females and males were placed in adjacent compartments with a mesh window in between. The male was then pre-fed either wax moth larvae or mealworm beetle larvae – both favourite treats for jays - until he did not want more. At the same time, the female's desire was manipulated by giving her the same food as the male (meaning that their desires were matching), a different food from the male (meaning that their desires were conflicting), or her usual diet (meaning that the female's desire was neutral towards the two types of larvae).

During the pre-feeding, the male had visual access to the female and saw her eat. At the end of pre-feeding, all food was removed. The males were then given 20 choices between a single wax moth larva and a mealworm beetle larva which they could either eat, cache (hide for later) or give to the female.

Not surprisingly, when the male and female birds' preferences were the same, the male fed the female the food desired by both. However, when the female's desire differed from the male's, then he took his partner's wishes into account, often feeding her the that she desired. This ability to ascribe to another individual an internal life like one's own and at the same time understand that the other's internal, psychological states might differ from one's own is called state-attribution.

Professor Nicky Clayton, whose Comparative Cognition lab at Cambridge University's Department of Psychology conducted the study, said: "As humans, we 'put ourselves into someone else's shoes' in order to respond to what the other person wants. Although we are biased by our own current desires, we can inhibit these to put the wants and desires of another before our own. The current findings show that the jays can also do this. So what this research suggests is that a common mechanism might underlie 'desire-state attribution' in humans and ."

Explore further: Insect mating behavior has lessons for drones

More information: The paper 'Can male Eurasian jays disengage from their own current desire to feed the female what she wants?; will be published in the 26 March edition of the Royal Society journal Biology Letters:

Related Stories

Female mice prefer unfamiliar male songs

Feb 05, 2014

Female mice prefer songs of mice that are different from their parents when selecting a mate, according to a study published February 5, 2014 in PLOS ONE by Akari Asaba from the Azabu University, Japan, and co ...

Bird song – it's not just a male gig

Mar 05, 2014

Since Darwin's observations we thought that bird songs were a male trait for courting with females who were drawn to the most seductive male song.

Recommended for you

Insect mating behavior has lessons for drones

17 hours ago

Male moths locate females by navigating along the latter's pheromone (odor) plume, often flying hundreds of meters to do so. Two strategies are involved to accomplish this: males must find the outer envelope ...

Godwits are flexible... when they get the chance

May 29, 2015

Black-tailed godwits are able to cope with unpredictable weather. This was revealed by a thorough analysis of the extraordinary spring of 2013 by ecologist Nathan Senner of the University of Groningen and ...

Do you have the time? Flies sure do

May 28, 2015

Flies might be smarter than you think. According to research reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 28, fruit flies know what time of day it is. What's more, the insects can learn to con ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.