Science

Cockatoos make advanced toolsets, the first non-primates known to do so

Cockatoos make advanced toolse...
A Goffin's cockatoo crafting one of three tools to help it crack into fruit
A Goffin's cockatoo crafting one of three tools to help it crack into fruit
View 1 Image
A Goffin's cockatoo crafting one of three tools to help it crack into fruit
1/1
A Goffin's cockatoo crafting one of three tools to help it crack into fruit

Many animals are known to make tools to help them find food or achieve other everyday goals, but advanced toolmaking skills are rarer. Now, wild cockatoos have been seen making sets of tools, each with their own design and purpose, and using them in a specific order to crack into fruit. This behavior places them in an exclusive club that previously only included humans and some primates.

Native to Indonesia, Goffin’s cockatoos are very intelligent, and they aren’t afraid to show it. In past captive studies, a particularly crafty little cocky named Figaro has been seen to make rakes to reach food placed just outside his cage, and teach other birds how to do it. But whether wild cockatoos do the same, and to what extent, remained a mystery.

And now, it seems that they can. Researchers at the Tanimbar Goffin Lab in Indonesia studied the cockatoos for years, keeping flocks of 15 in an aviary for a few months at a time before releasing them. Nothing much happened when the birds were given basic foods like papayas and coconuts – but things changed once they were given a more challenging fruit called a sea mango, or a wawai.

This small fruit has a tough pit full of seeds, which are apparently tasty and nutritious enough to work for. The scientists watched as one of the cockatoos quickly crafted not one, but three different types of tools, used in sequence to pry the pit open.

First, the bird bit off the soft flesh of the fruit, surrounding the pit. Then, he snapped off a small piece of a branch from a nearby tree, and used his knife-like beaks to remove the bark and whittle the wood into a wedge shape. Using his tongue, he pushed the wedge into the pit to open it up.

Next, the cockatoo made a sharper, narrower tool to break through the tough inner skin around the seeds. And finally, he made a third, flatter tool that he used like a spoon to scoop out the seeds into his mouth.

Only two of the 15 birds in the flock were seen to make these tool kits, but the team says that they’ve found some of these tools discarded in the wild, including one still stuck in a wawai fruit. That suggests that the cockatoos are passing the knowledge between individuals, in a kind of cultural learning previously seen in other species like dolphins and primates.

But this kind of sequential use of different tools is surprisingly complex for birds, the team says. The behavior has previously only been observed in humans, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys.

It’s not the first example of advanced toolmaking in birds though. A few years ago crows were seen assembling tools from separate pieces, exhibiting a different kind of ingenuity assumed to be out of their reach.

The new research was published in the journal Current Biology. The cockatoos can be seen making tools in the video below.

Snippet: Wild cockatoos make their own cutlery sets

Source: Tanimbar Goffin Lab via Science

5 comments
5 comments
Ornery Johnson
I once saw a tiny sparrow-like bird fly up to a chain link fence topped with razor wire. He was carrying a lizard who's head was apparently too big for the bird to gulp down. The bird carefully placed the neck of the dead lizard in the crook of the razor wire, then grabbed the tail with his beak and started yanking repeatedly with as much force as he could muster. After about ten yanks, the lizard's head popped off and the little bird gobbled it on the spot, leaving the tail hanging out of it's mouth. I was stunned that such a small bird could be so smart. If I'd filmed what I'd seen I'd be a rich man.
christopher
A few years back I spent the day exploring bush off the side of some random freeway in the middle of nowhere - when I was way out of earshot of the cars, I noticed that the birds were narrating my progress! They made a distinct call every time I stopped, resumed walking, turned left, right, or turned around - they were unambiguously broadcasting exactly what I was doing to anything listening.
SS
I've been following articles about crows and it is now believed that they have the intelligence of a 7-year-old. Do you know how this might compare to the cockatoos?
Rodg
Great article but not surprising to an Aussie. I have been watching these bush vandals for years. Every year, flock of 8 to 10 black cockatoos, arrive at the right moment to strip my beautiful,hakea tree, in 4 hours flat. Not only tool making but co operative activity. And if you want your washing un hung out, leave that to the corelleas and the white cockatoos who love to un peg clothes.
Lamar Havard
Otters use rocks to smash open clams and oysters.