Birdies over par: Goffin cockatoos can even “play golf” and thus prove their ability to solve spatially complex tasks with combined tools. The clever birds quickly learn to apply a ball to the “green” with their beak first, and then to pot it with a “club”. The scientists report that this demonstrates the use of tools at a similarly high level as in primates.
Native to Indonesia, Goffin cockatoos, like crows, are known for their ability to learn and innovative problem-solving. The clever birds tinker with tools, master the shell game and easily crack a five-part safe lock. However, the cockatoos weigh up exactly when the effort is worthwhile and they can make logical decisions according to the exclusion principle. All of these are cognitive abilities that have long been known only from primates.
Tool use in the combined way
Now the Goffin cockatoos have also proven their skills in another discipline: the associative use of tools. This means the use of multiple objects or combined tools to achieve a common goal. This ability was crucial to human development, but has only been demonstrated in very few animals. Antonio José Osuna Mascaró from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna and his colleagues therefore wanted to find out whether Goffin’s cockatoos can also do this.
“I wanted to design an experiment to test the extent to which these amazing creatures pay attention to simultaneous actions when using tools,” explains Mascaró. “The answer lay on my way to the lab: a golf course! A golf-like task would allow me to test the animals’ ability to perform combined tool actions.”
Golf test for cockatoos
For the cockatoo’s golf test, the researchers first constructed the “green” – a platform with two holes. If the “golf ball” was placed in the right hole, a food reward in the form of a cashew nut rolled out of the platform below. The catch, however, was that the platform was behind a net. To get their reward, the cockatoos first had to place the ball on the green through a small opening in the net. Then it was a matter of picking up a stick and using it as a “golf club” to hit the ball on the green to the right hole.
Such golf-like tasks are an enormous challenge for every animal, as the research team explains. Because the birds not only have to master a sophisticated form of associative tool use, they also have to assess the spatial relationships between the objects extremely precisely. The cockatoos have to aim correctly while paying attention to the changing positions of the ball, the stick and their own body.
Hole in without any problems
But the clever cockatoos made it: “Three of our cockatoos managed to use the stick in such a way that they could throw the ball into the right hole and thus secure a reward – a real demonstration of tool innovation at a very high level,” says Mascaró . Figaro, an adult male cockatoo, was even able to solve the task on the first try.
“One of the most amazing aspects of the process was watching these animals each invent their own individual technique for grabbing the stick and hitting the ball, sometimes with amazing dexterity,” reports the researcher. “One of the birds operated the stick by holding it between the upper and lower jaws, another between the tip of the beak and the tongue, and another with its claw, much like a primate.”
First record outside of primates
The Goffin cockatoos have once again proven how advanced their cognitive abilities are. “To our knowledge, this is the first evidence of such a combination of abilities in a non-primate animal,” the researchers state. “This proves that the cognitive prerequisites for combined tool use have also developed outside of primates.”
And even within primates, only a few species are known to have such abilities, including chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys. They use stone and anvil to crack nuts. But even the chimpanzees need years of experience and practice to do this. However, some cockatoos seem to learn such a task surprisingly quickly. (Scientific Reports, 2022; doi: 10.1038 / s41598-022-05529-9)
Source: University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna