RESEARCH: Cockatoos can use several tools in a toolkit to retrieve food

Scientists found that cockatoos understand when a job requires a toolkit and multiple tools.

Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, in Austria, studied Goffin’s Cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana) from Indonesia, reported the New Scientist LIFE magazine in February 2023.

Antonio Osuna-Mascary, a researcher at the University, said that the cockatoos know when to use more than one tool to retrieve food which, previously, scientists thought only chimpanzees could do. This makes the cockatoos only the second non-human animal to use multiple tools to achieve one task.

The scientists noticed that the Goffin’s Cockatoos could use three human-made tools to retrieve seeds from inside a fruit stone: (1) a tool for cutting the fruit stone, (2) a stronger tool for wedging open a crack in the fruit stone, and (3) a third tool for scooping out the seeds. 

The scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna wanted to understand whether the Goffin’s Cockatoos knew that all three tools were part of a toolkit for one task, or whether the cockatoos just used each tool in turn as the need arose.

Antonio Osuna-Mascary’s team of researchers gave 10 Goffin’s Cockatoos a box with a cashew nut in it, but the box was behind a transparent cover. To retrieve the cashew nut, each cockatoo had to first use a short pointed stick to make a hole in the transparent cover, then use a longer straw to retrieve the nut. The result was that 7 out of the 10 cockatoos (70%) could do the task successfully. 

This result did not show whether the cockatoos knew that the two tools were part of a toolkit to be used together, so 5 cockatoos were tested again. The research team put the box higher up than the given tools to see if the cockatoos could make the short, but difficult, trip to the box. Four of the 5 cockatoos (80%) did the task successfully – they flew vertically up to the box and took two tools to the box in one trip. By doing this at the same time, in one trip, showed that they knew the two tools were needed to be used together to complete the task.

The Goffin’s Cockatoos may not be the only birds that can do this. Maybe other birds in the wild can do this multiple-tool task. The Goffin’s Cockatoos might be the only birds that have been studied and observed doing this during an experiment. 

Journal reference : Current BiologyDOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.01.023

Photographer: University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna video


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