Advanced cognitive skills like manufacturing of tools, that was once regarded as a feature unique to man is now revealed to be possessed by many other species. Chimpanzees and other primates, birds like crows, vultures and Galapagos finches have so far displayed tool manufacturing skills. The latest addition to the list is the Goffin’s cockatoos.

Study conducted by researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna and University of Oxford have shown that Goffin’s cockatoos can make and use elongated tools of appropriate shape and length. The birds can make tools out of different materials, proving that they have the ability to judge how the tools will be used.

Activities like tool manufacturing are made possible by the combination of heritable and acquired competencies along with individual creativity. The Goffin’s cockatoo is an intriguing case to study as it does not possess inherited tool skills and relies more on innovation and problem-solving. This native bird of Indonesia has so far not been known for displaying such abilities either in the wild or to have evolved them. However, one particular bird, christened Figaro, had previously displayed the ability to spontaneously make tools by biting long splinters out of the wooden beams of its cage, which it then used to rake pieces of food that were otherwise out of reach. Since then, three other birds have displayed similar skills, evidencing that building tools is within the capacity of the species.

However, this particular trait of the Goffin’s cockatoo alone does not prove their recognition of the need to specific tools for specific tasks. In order to further test the assumption that the birds aimed making elongated tools to bridge a particular distance, researchers gave them the problem of reaching food placed away from a cage. They were given four different materials that required different manipulations to produce suitable tools: larch wood (already familiar to them), leafy beech twigs (which had to be trimmed to be functional), cardboard (which could be cut into any shape and length) and totally formless beeswax

The result as shared by Dr. Alice Auersperg, Head, Goffin Laboratory, Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, revealed that while none of the birds succeeded in making tools out of beeswax, at least a few could make suitable tools from the three remaining materials. They made well-shaped tools, even though each material required different manipulation techniques. Tools were made out of larch wood by biting, redundant leaves and side branches of leafy twigs were snapped off and necessary shapes were cut from the cardboard sheets. The fact that the birds made several bite marks along the edge of the material like a hole punch, using their curved upper beak to cut the cardboard piece made the observation more interesting. The shapeless material was cut to just above or very close to the minimum length required to reach the food placed behind the barrier.

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Goffin’s cockatoo reaching food placed away from a cage. Image credit: Bene Croy

The objective of the study according to Professor Alex Kacelnik, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford was to understand how animals think – more so, to produce the equivalent of explicit computer programs capable of doing what the birds do. It is but not yet known if the birds can picture the object in their minds and then follow that as a template to build something new. Further, how their brains elicit the appropriate set of movements to organise response to novel problems is also to be studied.

This study is an interesting development because it tries to look into the cognitive working of these birds that do not make tools naturally following pre-programmed instructions evolved to solve such problems. The cockatoos thus offer wonderful research opportunities displaying intelligence that is flexible and powerful. They are capable of solving physical and logical problems, learning by watching, learning about the surrounding objects by playing and also, as the study reveals, can imagine which object would allow them to solve a new problem.

Featured image: Goffin’s cockatoo could make tools out of different materials, proving that they have the ability to judge how the tools will be used. Image credit: Bene Croy

Video credit: University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna

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