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Study shines light on parrots' hand-to-mouth existence

The Age

Tuesday February 8, 2011


AUSTRALIAN parrots put their best foot forward when it comes to food but which foot that is depends on whether you're looking at a cockatoo or a king parrot.After examining the foot preferences in 16 species of Australian parrots, Macquarie University scientists found not all species were the same. Some parrots such as the sulphur-crested cockatoo were entirely left-handed; others, including the king parrot, were mainly right-handed.While the findings established some parrot species are left-handed and some are right-handed, others such as the budgie, galah and rainbow lorikeet are ambidextrous."That blows out of the water the idea that all animals are using the same [brain] hemisphere to process the same information," said Macquarie University's director of advanced biology, Culum Brown.Parrots are an ideal model to study, as they are one of the few species that exhibit hand or foot preferences to the same level as humans. The vast majority about 90 per cent of humans are right-handed and there is no other animal equivalent to that, not even among primates, Dr Brown said.He said there was a similarity between fledgling parrots and young children, in that they experimented with both hands before favouring one hand over the other.The findings, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, could provide an insight into what makes animals including humans favour one hand over the other."This is probably the first time we see some kind of mechanism trying to explain how handedness came about in the first place," Dr Brown said. "It's clearly linked to brain lateralisation. So the brain lateralisation determines eye lateralisation, which determines hand preferences."In the bird world, larger parrots manipulate their food by picking it up before they eat it and are brain lateralised which means, as it does for humans, that certain functions are located in the right or left side of the brain.However, smaller parrots, which tend to graze rather than manipulate their food, are less strongly lateralised.The research, undertaken with honours student Maria Magat, also found there was a correlation between the dominant hand and dominant eye used to scrutinise potential food.However, there was an exception to this rule. The relationship between the hand and eye for the cockatiel bucked the trend, with the bird's dominant hand being the opposite to its dominant eye.

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