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A fully automated procedure, involving computer-controlled stimulus presentation and computer-recorded response measurement, was used for the first time to study imitation in non-human animals. After preliminary training to peck and step on a manipulandum, budgerigars were given a discrimination task in which they were rewarded with food for pecking during observation of pecking and for stepping during observation of stepping (Compatible group), or for pecking while observing stepping and for stepping while observing pecking (Incompatible group). The Incompatible group, which had to counter-imitate for food reward, showed weaker discrimination performance than the Compatible group. This suggests that, like humans, budgerigars are subject to 'automatic imitation'; they cannot inhibit online the tendency to imitate pecking and/or stepping, even when imitation of these behaviours interferes with the performance of an ongoing task. The difference between the two groups persisted over 10 test sessions, but the Incompatible group eventually acquired the discrimination, making more counter-imitative than imitative responses in the final sessions. These results are consistent with the associative sequence learning model, which suggests that, across species, the development of imitation and the mirror system depends on sensorimotor experience and phylogenetically ancient mechanisms of associative learning.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Biol Sci

Publication Date





2547 - 2553


Animals, Behavior, Animal, Imitative Behavior, Learning, Melopsittacus