While there are a few prominent tool users in the animal kingdom, mainly our chimpanzee cousins and those clever corvids, these skills overall are actually pretty rare. The ability requires not only a lot of intelligence, but also the ability to show flexible behavior depending on the situation, as well as controlling their impulses to delay their rewards.
New research has now looked into how one tool user, the Indonesian Goffin’s cockatoo, makes a decision based on what food is available, and what food they might be able to get by using a tool. The researchers found that the birds will take a lower quality item of food only if the alternative option, that of a tool to access another piece of food trapped within a puzzle, didn’t match the puzzle it was designed to solve. This shows that the birds are able to make a decision about tool use depending on the evidence they are provided with.
Goffin’s cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana) have been found to be able to craft and use two different types of tools, depending on the situation. One is a stick that they use for probing, as well as “raking” to get at food just out of reach, while in other situations the birds will also drop stones into tubes in order to knock out rewards. Not only that, but the cockatoos have also been shown to pass the “marshmallow” test in which they have been shown to hold back their immediate impulses to eat a piece of food (in this case a pecan) if they think they will get a higher quality item (a cashew) later on.
In a new set of experiments, the results of which have been published in Scientific Reports, the birds were given a choice between a tool which could be used to solve one of the two puzzles, and a piece of food. If the birds were given the tool and high-quality food (cashew), they would consume the cashew. But when given a choice between the pecan and the tool, their decision was based upon whether or not the tool was the right one to solve the problem. If it was, then they would ignore the food and solve the puzzle to get the better food, but if the tool did not match the problem, they would take the lower quality pecan.
“Our findings parallel previous results in primates: the cockatoos could overcome immediate impulses in favor of future gains even if this implied tool use,” explains Alice Auersperg from the University of Vienna, and co-author of the study. “As wild Goffin cockatoos are unlikely to be specialized on tool use, this shows that tool related decision-making can arise from relatively general modes of cognitive processing as, for example, a combination of flexibility, sensorimotor and impulse control.”
The researchers say that this clearly shows how the birds have working memory, and the ability to control their impulses, and then make the right decision over tool use, dispelling many myths about bird intelligence.