Never seen a bird playing golf? Then today is your lucky day. A new study published today on the tool use skills of Goffin’s cockatoos put these birds’ problem-solving skills to the test by setting them up with a little golf challenge. The concept was simple enough: wield the “club” to hit a marble into a hole and score a cashew. The tool use behind the action, however, is quite something, combining using composite, free-moving objects to achieve a singular goal — something usually only seen in a handful of primates.
Published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from the Goffin's lab at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria found that Goffin’s cockatoos were capable of primate-level tool use in using a stick to hit a marble and win a nut. An impressive feat because it combines the functions of two things that are free-moving, making aim arguably more difficult.
Now, you might be wondering, how on Earth do you teach a cockatoo to play golf? The simple answer is you don’t. They can work it out all on their own.
“We have to keep in mind that they had no instructions of any kind about how to solve the experiment, they had to find the solution by themselves, by means of pure innovation,” first author Antonio Osuna-Mascaró told IFLScience.
“Their first strategy was to study the box and its possible weak points… It was when they gave up studying the box through all its nooks and crannies that they realized they could combine the function of the marble and the stick to find a solution.”
The unique methodology of getting birds to play sport as a means of studying tool use struck Osuna-Mascaró while passing a golf course on his way to the lab. Given that cockatoos don’t have hands, getting them to crack nuts like apes was a no-go but getting them to hit balls with tiny golf clubs? The results speak for themselves.
The cockatoos were teed up next to a small, raised platform complete with an authentic green carpet. The "course" had a hole at either end, but they would only receive the visible cashew reward if they knocked the small white marble into the corresponding hole.
If you’ve ever played golf, you’re likely acutely aware how even the easiest of shots can sometimes go awry. It’s therefore tricky to imagine a cockatoo nailing the sport, but as Osuna-Mascaró and colleagues found the birds soon got on top of their game.
"Three of our cockatoos figured out how to use the stick to shimmy the ball into the correct hole and secure a reward, a real demonstration of tool innovation at a very high level," said Osuna-Mascaró in a statement sent to IFLScience.
"One of the most amazing aspects of the process was to observe how these animals each invented their own individual technique in how to grip the stick and hit the ball, sometimes with astonishing dexterity. One of the birds operated the stick while holding it between the mandibles, one between the beak tip and tongue and one with his claw, similar to a primate".
However, not all the participants were so concerned with playing by the rules.
“Figaro had some problems using both tools at the same time, so he was constantly exploring the box, apparently looking for a way to reach the cashew directly with the stick without needing to use the ball,” Osuna-Mascaró told IFLScience. “He discovered that he could use the stick as a lever… All he had to do was lift the box and drop it, the very weight of the box would shake the mechanism and release the cashew. The ability to innovate tooling solutions by these creatures is certainly astounding.”
Work smarter, not harder, we guess.
It’s hoped the insights from the cockatoo tee-off will contribute towards a more substantial understanding of the evolution of technology, and the team next hopes to take a deeper dive into associative tool use among these animals to see how far their abilities go.