Spontaneous Backward Chaining in a Blue Jay

Something similar to backward chaining can occur spontaneously with the aid of extinction-induced resurgence. When I was in graduate school, my wife and I fed peanuts to the large squirrels in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Soon a number of squirrels were showing up every day to receive handouts of fresh roasted peanuts. A blue jay took note and started stealing peanuts when we tossed them onto the ground for the squirrels. To prevent this, I had to hand the peanuts directly to the squirrels, which (in effect) put the blue jay on an extinction schedule.

How did a blue jay show impressive learning and memory?

The jay responded with extinction-induced resurgence—a flurry of novel behaviors such as preening and fluffing up. Such a behavior is normally used for staying warm or in courtship displays. When we saw the blue jay fluffed up, we thought it was cute, so we tossed it a peanut. Otherwise we ignored it. Soon the bird was fluffing up every time it saw us.

Next we noticed that, as we walked through our house, the bird was flying from branch to branch outside our windows, fluffing up, trying to elicit peanuts. Apparently it could see us through the windows. It received several peanuts after such displays.

This game continued until the bird left for the winter. To our surprise, the same bird showed up again the following year. This means it carried out a complex chain of behaviors. It found our house, sat on a branch outside the window, spotted a human, fluffed up, and—just like the year before—it got a peanut tossed to it from the front porch.


Left to right: the blue jay appears on a branch, preens, fluffs up, and receives reinforcement

How did the blue jay's learning experiences resemble backward chaining?

The last behavior in the chain (flying down to the ground to get a peanut) actually came first in the bird's learning experiences. The other behaviors (learning to fluff for a peanut, then learning to go to a window to look for a human, then finding its way back to the house) were added, one-by-one, as requirements for getting a peanut. They formed a natural "backward chain."


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey