Cockatoos can not only use tools, they can carry whole toolkits to trickier jobs, study shows
(CNN) — The ability to solve problems with multiple tools is a rare talent in the animal kingdom, but according to new research, cockatoos are the first birds on the block to carry and use a tool kit to suit their needs.
Using 10 Goffin’s cockatoos, researchers from Austria and the UK made their discovery after carrying out three experiments as published in the journal Current Biology Friday.
Goffin’s cockatoos are small white parrots native to the Tanimbar Islands in Indonesia. They were chosen after the researchers spotted them using a “tool set” in the wild. In this study, cockatoos from the Goffin Lab in Vienna were used.
“We’ve seen them use a complex tool set (in the wild), but we did not know if they were aware they were using one, or if it was just a chain of single tool uses in a sequence,” Antonio Osuna Mascaró, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and lead study author, told CNN.
Previously, the only non-human animal known to use a toolkit was the chimpanzee, specifically the Goualougo Triangle chimpanzee from the northern Republic of Congo, according to the study.
Inspired by the chimpanzees’ two-tool, termite-fishing process of making holes in a termite mound with a blunt stick and then inserting a different stick to fish the termites out, Osuna Mascaró and his team devised experimental designs that mimicked this process.
Describing the first experiment, Osuna Mascaró said: “We gave them a problem in which they had to fish cashews out of a box, by first poking a hole in the membrane that blocked it with a short, pointy stick and then getting it out with a longer, flexible stick.”
To the researchers’ surprise, some of the cockatoos solved the problem very quickly, with one taking just 31 seconds to do so in its first try.
Mark Briffa, associate head at the School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth, told CNN that basic tool use is common in animals, but using “a tool set implies the ability to solve problems through flexibly applying some insight of a given situation … (which) this study convincingly shows.” Briffa was not involved in the study.
Four cockatoos failed to complete the first experiment successfully, and one dropped out after showing a lack of interest. Five, however, progressed to the next stage of the study. Briffa said it would be interesting to find out why some of the birds failed the task.
The second experiment looked at tool use flexibility — whether or not the cockatoos would choose the right tool or tools for the right task. This was done by randomly giving the cockatoos a box that required either a single tool or two tools to extract the nuts, according to the study. The cockatoos aced this test, too.
The final experiment included an extra challenge, the addition of different phases to reach the box of cashews, tools in tow — climbing, horizontal flight and vertical flight — to see whether the birds transported one tool at a time or saved energy by taking both together.
The box, which was visible to the cockatoos from the outset, required either one tool or both.
The researchers saw that four cockatoos were eventually able to transport both tools together when needed, even when flying, with three birds “remarkably” managing it consistently.
This suggests they learned to take both tools together and saw them as a set, something Briffa said is “relevant to questions about the evolution of tool use and the cognitive abilities that underpin it.”
Overall, Osuna Mascaró said that by showing that cockatoos plan their tool use according to the requirements of the situation, the study is the start of looking at their cognitive abilities.
Talking about the next steps, Osuna Mascaró said one possible avenue would be comparing the birds to human children.
“We noticed that each cockatoo had a different way of carrying and using the tool sets, which is interesting because cockatoos learned it through play and being curious, like humans do,” he said.
Talking about the wider implications, Briffa said the study is relevant to questions about animal sentience — the level of awareness and insight animals have about their world.