The parrots and crows stand out as bird brains who can compete with even the primates at masterminding their environment. When it comes to unfamiliar materials that do not exist in their environment, then the competition heats up. Goffin’s cockatoos are Near-Threatened parrots from Indonesia belonging to a group of 11 cockatoo and corella species. The reason for their situation is also their saviour because the main hope of avoiding near-extinction is in the great number of captured birds being bred for sale.
At the Universities of Vienna, Austria, Manchester and Oxford, UK, Alice MI.Auersperg, Stefan Borasinski, Isabelle Laumer and Alex Kacelnik have been investigating how the cockatoos utilise tools they adapt from different materials, publishing today in the Biology Letters of the Royal Society.
The rarity of tool manufacture by an animal demands that this example receives detailed study, as the cockatoo is shown to be able to manipulate substrates with active sculpting, carefully designed to make a shape that functions well. The inheritance of this competence is equally as interesting as social interaction to show others the skills involved and the individual creativity involved.
The bird in nature doesn’t make nests and forage without tools in a very general way, making the research more valuable than established research on crows for estimating innovative capabilities in the species in captivity.
Figaro began the whole research himself by using larch splinters to rake food from behind a grid. He is a bird, of course, so 3 more males were also shown to be successful when
asked to emulate his feats. They had tool use demonstrated, and then proceeded to copy, with one individual getting as far as Figaro, in making his own splint. Later experiments prove that elongation of the tool was one aspect the birds successfully attempted, making cardboard, beech twigs or larch wood more effective as tools.
The interesting point about this research is the way in which fast and flexible skill transfer was possible. Even sculpting was employed by the bird subjects to achieve a suitable tool for use. The cardboard rakers in particular showed in most cases that the animals could manufacture a tool of the required length (as well as width). The larch wood split naturally into strips that were sometimes too long for the job concerned. Even more significantly, the birds are capable of unpicking a 5-part lock mechanism, so we can see this research taken much further!
We have lots of stuff on tool using by the animals we mention here, but this is the fabled African Grey for a lesson on avian learning: - we believe these brainboxes should really be teaching us.