Zoologger: Cockatoos learn to make and use a tool
03 September 2014 by Michael Marshall
Species: Cacatua goffiniana
Habitat: forests and farmland of a few small islands in Indonesia, problem solving like pros
“Drat, I’ve dropped my nut. It’s fallen out of my cage and I can’t reach it through the bars. What to do, what to do…
“Ooh, what’s Figaro up to? He’s got the same problem… He’s got a piece of wood and he’s breaking off a strip from it, oh and now he’s using it to pull the nut back into reach. I’ve got to try that… Right, got the strip, now to rake that nut in. Yes… Yes… Got it!”
This is a train of thought that most humans could pull off fairly easily, but the majority of animals couldn’t even attempt it. Not so the Goffin cockatoo, a popular pet bird that is proving to be surprisingly quick-thinking. After a lone Goffin cockatoo figured out how to make and use a simple tool, others have learned the same trick by watching him.
Give me my nut!
Goffin cockatoos are very intelligent. Last year it emerged that they can do sequential problem-solving: that is, complete a challenge in which a number of tasks have to be carried out in the right order.
The cockatoos were able to unpick a lock that had three elements. Only once the first element had been opened could the second one be opened, and only after that could they open the third. Five birds managed this with guidance or practice, but one pulled it off unassisted (PLoS One, doi.org/m5q).
Then there are the tools. In 2012, Alice Auersperg at the University of Vienna in Austria and her colleagues saw a captive male Goffin cockatoo called Figaro use a stick to try and retrieve a pebble that had fallen out of his cage. He didn’t succeed, but it suggested he knew how to use the stick as a tool.
So they presented him with a nut that was just out of reach beyond the bars of his cage and a large piece of wood. Figaro bit a large splinter out of the wood and used it to rake in the nut. He did this repeatedly (Current Biology, doi.org/vfr).
Do what I do
Now other Goffin cockatoos have picked up the trick, showing that they can learn from each other. Auersperg’s team allowed six cockatoos to watch Figaro use his splinter, while another six were shown control demonstrations in which either the tool or the food were made to move in a Figaro-like way using magnets.
Of the six birds that saw Figaro at work, three could then pick up and use a splinter to retrieve a nut – and two of these even worked out to make a splinter themselves by chewing one off a larger chunk of wood. None of the control birds managed to retrieve the nut.
The successful birds didn’t imitate Figaro’s technique, however. Instead of the raking motion he used, they used a sideways flick. This suggests they understood that the tool could be used to obtain the nut, and then used trial-and-error to figure out how.
Curiously, the three birds that learned how to use the tools were all males, and those that didn’t figure it out, even after watching Figaro many times, were all female. Given the small sample size that could just be a coincidence, but Auersperg says it could reflect a real difference. “I think the males are probably better at problem-solving,” she says. “They have to supply the females at the nest,” giving them an extra incentive to wise up.
It’s not clear why the cockatoos are so innovative, says Auersperg, but it may be because they live on small islands. “They are in a special situation with unpredictable resources,” she says, and that may have forced them to get smart. So far there are no reports of cockatoos making or using tools in the wild, but Auersperg says they haven’t been studied much. “Whether they use tools or not in the wild is the big question,” she says.
Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0972