These clever cockatoos carry around toolkits to get to food faster

Bird intelligence researcher in maroon shirt with flock of captive Goffin's cockatoos on his arms and head

Antonio Osuna-Mascaró with his flock of handy Goffin's cockatoos. Thomas Suchanek

The crafty cockatoos have done it again. A new study published today in the journal Current Biology found that Goffin’s cockatoos, a bird native to Indonesia, carry multiple tools and customize their kits to whatever complex problem they are facing. “They are super flexible,” says Antonio Osuna-Mascaró, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in Austria and lead author of the research study. “They can learn how to use tools by themselves, innovate the tool sets, and transport what they [specifically] need from them.” The findings cement Goffin’s cockatoos as one of the smartest creatures on Earth.

Goffin’s cockatoos have caught the eye of animal biologists for some time. These small white parrots are capable of delayed gratification, resisting the temptation of snacking if they know they’ll get a better reward for waiting. Captive and wild individuals show similar problem-solving behaviors and can assess a situation through different means. For example, Goffin’s cockatoos know whether an object is heavy or light just by looking at it. More recently, animal biologists have discovered that these birds can learn to create complex and multipurpose tool sets.

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While Goffin’s cockatoos use clubs, picks, and other DIY instruments, they are not the first animals to do this. Elephants, sea otters, and gorillas use tools for several purposes such as to get food or create shelter. Chimpanzees, humanity’s closest living relative, go one step further. Osuna-Mascaró explains that chimpanzees use two different tools to go termite fishing: a thick and short one to open a hole in the termite mound and then a flexible one to collect the insects. The primates have also adapted their hardware to their situation. Sometimes they may only bring the probe to fish for termites because the mound already had punctured holes. 

To see if Goffin’s cockatoos could also be flexible in their tool use, the study authors created three scenarios similar to how chimpanzees wield multiple strategies for termite fishing.

1. Can cockatoos learn to use new tools?

The first experiment tested 10 captive cockatoos on their ability to innovate their tool set. They were given one sharp and pointy stick that would need to be used first to tear open a transparent paper membrane hiding a cashew, and then one long and flexible object that with a wagging motion could reach the nut behind the ruptured barrier. The study authors note this is the first time the individual birds had a tool with a function to puncture objects, so they would need time to explore the implement and then figure out how to use it.

The cockatoos had 10 minutes to figure out the solution. If they failed, they could try again the next day. A successful session was defined by the bird being able to reach the cashews in three consecutive days. 

Out of the group of 10, six cockatoos successfully got the nutty prize in three back-to-back sessions. Certain members caught on quicker than others. “Figaro is probably the most famous cockatoo in the world because he was the one who showed us in past research that cockatoos are able to make, modify, and use their own tools,” explains Osuna-Mascaró. “I was suspecting Figaro to struggle a little, so I was super surprised to see him solving the experiment in 31 seconds.” The highest socially ranked female in the group, Fini, was a close second. She finished the task in 34 seconds. 

Goffin's cockatoo flying to a clear box indoors with a pink stick tool in its beak
Figaro takes his tools on the go. Thomas Suchanek

2. Can cockatoos fits their tools to the situation?

Five cockatoos who passed the first task then moved on to the second experiment. This task tested the birds’ ability to use the tool set in different ways. The researchers randomly alternated the subjects between two boxes with two different courses of action. The first box had a membrane in which the cockatoos would need two tools to break open and retrieve the cashew. The second box had a membrane with holes already in it, so they would only need to use the long and flexible probe. 

The team kept track of which tool the birds wielded first and when they used it correctly. They found that cockatoos gradually learned and got better at choosing the correct instrument in every passing session. One reason for the birds’ high performance is because of their switching behavior between the tools, observes Osuna-Mascaró. When the parrots had to choose between the two objects, the study authors noticed a pattern where they would pick up one tool, release it, and then pick up the second tool before releasing it as well. This behavior was also seen in the first experiment, but it increased significantly in the second. 

Cockatoos who engaged in switching behavior were more likely to do better in selecting the correct tool option for the box they were in. Osuna-Mascaró’s team suggests several explanations. Moving between the two choices could help with the thought process when mulling over the best decision. Holding the tools could also help the birds recognize their functional properties and whether these features would help with the task at hand.

3. Can cockatoos tell when they need a whole toolkit?

The third experiment tested how flexible the species was at transporting the toolset. The task involved a platform holding two randomized two boxes (membrane or no membrane) containing the cashew. In the first phase, the cockatoos needed to either climb up or fly horizontally to a table holding the implements before flying vertically to reach the box. The study authors looked to see if the birds would consider these new circumstances and decide to carry along the tools together as a set in their beaks or talons. Bringing both objects at once would be energetically cheaper than having to fly back and forth.

What’s more, it provides a huge advantage in solving trickier problems, says Elizabeth Hobson, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Cincinnati, who was not affiliated with the research. She says that a cockatoo having multiple tools on the go is like a human having an Allen key prepared in their pockets.

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Out of the five cockatoos, four transported tools across the platforms and three did it consistently (Figaro included). The fifth bird never carried both tools together, though Osuna-Mascaró says this is likely because he is the strongest bird in the flock, so flying back and forth was probably not seen as labor intensive for him. 

“A tool set is more than the sum of its parts.” says Osuna-Mascaró. “Now we can argue that cockatoos have a mental representation of the needs the tool set has for them.”

Overall, Hobson think the experiments offer clearer details on Goff’s cockatoos’ cognitive prowess. “There are a couple things in this study that stand out,” she says. “It fleshes out more details about what the cockatoos are capable of in terms of tool use, and builds on recent documentation of tool use in this species in the wild.”