New Experiment Reveals How Freakishly Intelligent Cockatoos Are

A Goffin's cockatoo tears off a strip of cardboard and gets crafty. Goffin Lab/University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna

The battle of the brains rages on between cockatoos and their corvid cousins. Just last month, a study showed how New Caledonian crows can make their own tools by combining several different independent parts. Never ones to be shown up, cockatoos have now proved that they are a dab hand at tool crafting as well.

A new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, has shown how Goffin's cockatoos are able to craft materials to make a tool. The experiments used a motley crew of plucky cockatoos – Dolittle, Figaro, Kiwi, Konrad, Pipin, and Fini – to demonstrate how the birds can adjust the lengths of cardboard strips to create a tool that can reach food. Oddly, however, all but one of the cockatoos were rather bird-brained when it came to adjusting the strip's width to fit it through narrow openings.

Along with great apes and crows, cockatoos are among the very few animals that have the foresight, flexibility of behavior, and problem-solving skills to pull off this task.

"The way they inserted and discarded manufactured pieces of specific lengths differently depending on condition suggests that the cockatoos could indeed adjust their tool-making behavior in the predicted direction but with some limits in accuracy," Alice Auersperg, from the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, said in a statement.

A smart cockatoo using its homemade tool. Goffin Lab/University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna

In this research, six cockatoos were faced with a piece of cardboard and a see-through perspex box with seeds inside. In order to obtain the much-desired snack, they had to strip away pieces of the cardboard to make themselves a cardboard pokey tool.

All six of the cockatoos managed to work out how to adjust the length of their cardboard strip tools to account for variations in food distance. However, when it came to making a sufficiently thin tool to reach the food when the opening was at its narrowest, just one single bird was able to make a suitable tool.

Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffiniana) is a species of parrot native to Indonesia, although it's been introduced to Puerto Rico and Singapore. A number of previous studies have shown how cockatoos use tools, many of which have been produced by the Goffin Lab at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. One study in 2016 found that cockatoos can actively decide what tool to use based on what food is available and what food they might be able to get by using a tool.

Despite that old playground slur, you should never underestimate a bird brain. 

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