For years, crows have enjoyed a reputation as the most accomplished avian tool smiths, yet new research suggests that Goffin’s cockatoos may in fact be technologically superior to their sinister rivals. For the first time, the birds have been observed in the wild fashioning three-piece “tool sets” that they use to access and consume the pulpy flesh of sea mangoes.
Goffin’s cockatoos are medium-sized parrots that inhabit the Tanimbar Islands of Indonesia and have previously demonstrated an ability to use tools in laboratory experiments. Describing their observations in the journal Current Biology, the authors set out to determine whether the birds employ such behaviors in the wild, temporarily capturing 15 cockatoos and placing them in an aviary for observation, before later releasing them.
While in the aviary, the birds were supplied with sea mangoes, which are encased in a tough outer pit and are regularly enjoyed by cockatoos despite being toxic to humans. Immediately, two of the older specimens carried pieces of the fruit up into a tree, where they began fashioning twigs into tools with which to break open the pit and access the pulp within.
The authors describe how the birds created three different tools, which were used in succession in order to retrieve the flesh of the mangoes. “Fine tools”, for example, were used to pierce the outer pit, while “sturdy tools” served as wedges that were inserted into cracks in order to widen them. Finally, “medium tools” were employed to extract the pulp itself.
"This tool set by the Goffins is reminiscent of the use of cutlery," explained study author Alice Auersperg in a statement. “These dynamic actions, as well as the complex sequence in the manufacture and use of the tools could result in the most sophisticated example of innovative technology that has been observed in wild animals to date.”
Intriguingly, only the older cockatoos appeared to have the capacity to create these tool sets, indicating that the skill may be acquired or learned and is not inherent to all members of the species. “This skill may have emerged as a result of opportunity and innovation,” wrote the researchers.
While observing the birds, the researchers noticed several younger individuals attempting to copy the master tool makers. They also found discarded sea mangoes with these tools still lodged in them beneath trees frequented by wild Goffin’s cockatoos across the island.
Although crows have famously demonstrated their ability to solve complex puzzles using tools, the authors state that “the use of different tools to achieve a single goal is considered unique to human and primate technology.” For example, chimpanzees are known to use a variety of implements in order to break into termite mounds, yet the use of such “tool sets” had never previously been observed in birds.
While New Caledonian crows have been observed using multiple tools to perform the same function, Goffin's cockatoos appear to use "different types of tools in different ways, sequentially to achieve a single goal. This is said to be considerably more complex than repeating the same behavior with different tools," study author Dr Mark O'Hara told IFLScience.
Having witnessed this remarkable behavior in Goffin’s cockatoos, the authors announce that “this discovery represents one of the most complex examples of tool use so far recorded in any species without hands.”