Gift Advice From a Bird Brain

To celebrate the holiday season, ASO is bringing you a science-filled 12 Days of ASO Christmas! This will be a series of ‘mini-blogs’, by Rosemary Wills, centered on the science of some of our most cherished traditions. This is the third in the series. 

Gift-giving isn’t just a human phenomenon. Our feathered friends are some of the most generous (and romantic) members of the animal kingdom, offering choice food, nests, and shiny objects to their beloved mates (or even their favorite humans).

Eurasian jays (members of the same family as crows and blue jays) are particularly thoughtful gift-givers. After watching a female eat a meal of either moths or mealworms, males allowed to choose a moth or mealworm gift for her consistently offered the opposite of what she’d just eaten. Their logic: a bird who’s just eaten a bunch of moths won’t want yet another moth, so a mealworm present will seem extra special.

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Image credit: Feran Pestaña via Flickr.

By inferring which gift their mate would appreciate most, the jays demonstrated a significant cognitive leap: their behavior suggests an ability to view another individual as having experiences and feelings distinct from one’s own, called state-attribution. Related to theory of mind, this ability to place oneself in another’s shoes was long thought to be a uniquely human ability. In fact, it typically doesn’t even develop in children until roughly age three.

So if you’re struggling to find a suitable present for someone special on your list, consider consulting a jay.

About the Author

Rosemary WillisRosemary Wills is an undergraduate at UGA majoring in Plant Biology and Science Education. When she’s not writing, coding, or spending time with family, she enjoys growing plants in her windowsill and crocheting science-related things. More from Rosemary Wills.