Cockatoos Use and Transport Toolsets, a Behavior Thought Exclusive to Humans and Chimps

Not only are they using toolsets, but they know that they are using toolsets.

A cockatoo using the first of two tools to reach a cashew.
A cockatoo using the first of two tools to reach a cashew.

Thomas Suchanek

The Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it simply: "birdbrain, noun, 1 : a stupid person." Well, the corvids and the cockatoos are having the last laugh with that one.

Scientists who study bird brains and behavior have long known about the special smarts of corvids—the family of birds that include ravens, crows, and the like. But now, a study published in the journal Current Biology adds Goffin’s cockatoos to the Dean's List. Not only do these birds use and manufacture tools, but they will carry took kits to the worksite if the job requires it.

Among non-human animals, this behavior has only been reported in chimpanzees.

Hailing from Indonesia's Tanimbar Islands archipelago, Goffin’s cockatoos are small white parrots that have been known to manufacture and use tools, both in captivity and in the wild. But until now, scientists did not know whether or not the birds thought of their tools as a set or if the tools were collected and used as the need arose. The new research confirms that indeed, cockatoos recognize when a job needs more than one tool, and they plan accordingly.

Cockatoos and study author Antonio Osuna-Mascaro.
Cockatoos and study first author Antonio Osuna-Mascaro.

Thomas Suchanek.

“With this experiment, we can say that, like chimpanzees, Goffin’s cockatoos not only appear to be to using toolsets, but they know that they are using toolsets,” says first author Antonio Osuna-Mascaró, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. “Their flexibility of behavior is stunning.”

As explained in a press release for the study, Osuna-Mascaró's experiment was inspired by the termite-fishing Goualougo Triangle chimpanzees of northern Congo, the only other known non-human animal to use toolsets. "These chimpanzees fish for termites via a two-step process: first, they use a blunt stick to break holes in the termite mound, and then they insert a long, flexible probe to “fish” the termites out of the holes. In this study, Osuna-Mascaró’s team tasked the cockatoos with fishing for cashews instead of termites."

To replicate the chimpanzees' situation, the researchers made a box containing a cashew which required breaking through a transparent paper membrane to access. Once a parrot broke through the paper, with a pointy stick, it would need to use another tool, a halved straw, to reach the cashew. The birds were supplied with the two tools.

Seven of the 10 cockatoos figured it out, with two of the cockatoos (Figaro and Fini) completing the task within 35 seconds on their first attempt! Since the cockatoos don't have similar foraging requirements in the wild, the researchers concluded there was no chance that their tool use was based on innate behaviors. Additionally, each cockatoo varied slightly in their method.

With that task done, the team moved on to testing the cockatoos’ flexibility depending on the situation. They mixed up the boxes and presented each cockatoo with a box with the membrane and a box without. They were given the same two tools. “The cockatoos had to act according to the problem; sometimes the toolset was needed, and sometimes only one tool was enough,” says Osuna-Mascaró.

In this phase, all the cockatoos figured it out quickly and were able to use the right tool(s) for what the task required.

“When making the choice between which tool to use first, they were picking one up, releasing it, then picking up the other one, releasing it, returning to the first one, and so on,” says Osuna-Mascaró.

A series of photos of Figaro the Goffin's cockatoo flying while carrying a set of two tools towards a box containing a cashew.
Figaro the Goffin's cockatoo flying while carrying a set of two tools.

Thomas Suchanek

After that, the researchers evaluated the birds' transportation ability while carrying the tools. Offering a variety of situations, like climbing a short ladder while carrying the tools or flying horizontally and then vertically. Again, some of the boxes had the membrane and others didn't, meaning the cockatoos needed to decide if they needed one or both tools.

As described by the team:

Some cockatoos learned to carry the two tools together—by inserting the short punching stick into the groove of the halved straw—when they were presented with a box that required both. This meant they only had to make one trip, albeit while carrying a heavier toolset. Most of the cockatoos transported the toolset on an as-needed basis, further indicating that they knew ahead of time when two tools were required, though some made two trips when necessary. One cockatoo, Figaro, decided not to waste time thinking and instead carried both tools in almost every trial.

“We really did not know whether the cockatoos would transport two objects together,” says Alice Auersperg, senior author on the study and a cognitive biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. “It was a little bit of a gamble because I have seen birds combining objects playfully, but they very rarely transport more than one object together in their normal behavior.”

In the last few decades, there has been a growing movement to rethink the ways animals think—and studies like this keep revealing that animals are smarter than many people would like to think.

“We feel that, in terms of technical cognition and tool use, parrots have been underestimated and understudied,” says Auersperg.

We have long given short shrift to birds—maybe it's time to rebrand "birdbrain" to signify intelligence rather than lack of?