UK: Cockatoos can not only use tools, they can carry whole toolkits to trickier jobs, study shows

The ability to solve problems with multiple tools is a rare talent in the animal kingdom, but according to new research, cockatoos are the first birds on the block to carry and use a tool kit to suit their needs.

Using 10 Goffin’s cockatoos, researchers from Austria and the UK made their discovery after carrying out three experiments as published in the journal Current Biology Friday.

Goffin’s cockatoos are small white parrots native to the Tanimbar Islands in Indonesia. They were chosen after the researchers spotted them using a “tool set” in the wild. In this study, cockatoos from the Goffin Lab in Vienna were used.

“We’ve seen them use a complex tool set (in the wild), but we did not know if they were aware they were using one, or if it was just a chain of single tool uses in a sequence,” Antonio Osuna Mascaró, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and lead study author, told CNN.

One of the Goffin's cockatoos flies while carrying tools in its mouth.

Previously, the only non-human animal known to use a toolkit was the chimpanzee, specifically the Goualougo Triangle chimpanzee from the northern Republic of Congo, according to the study.

Inspired by the chimpanzees’ two-tool, termite-fishing process of making holes in a termite mound with a blunt stick and then inserting a different stick to fish the termites out, Osuna Mascaró and his team devised experimental designs that mimicked this process.

The birds could choose between a long, flexible tool and a shorter, pointed one.

Describing the first experiment, Osuna Mascaró said: “We gave them a problem in which they had to fish cashews out of a box, by first poking a hole in the membrane that blocked it with a short, pointy stick and then getting it out with a longer, flexible stick.”

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To the researchers’ surprise, some of the cockatoos solved the problem very quickly, with one taking just 31 seconds to do so in its first try.

Mark Briffa, associate head at the School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth, told CNN that basic tool use is common in animals, but using “a tool set implies the ability to solve problems through flexibly applying some insight of a given situation … (which) this study convincingly shows.” Briffa was not involved in the study.

The set-up for the third experiment, where the cockatoos had to fly horizontally while carrying the tools to the box on the ledge on the right.

Four cockatoos failed to complete the first experiment successfully, and one dropped out after showing a lack of interest. Five, however, progressed to the next stage of the study. Briffa said it would be interesting to find out why some of the birds failed the task.

The second experiment looked at tool use flexibility – whether or not the cockatoos would choose the right tool or tools for the right task. This was done by randomly giving the cockatoos a box that required either a single tool or two tools to extract the nuts, according to the study. The cockatoos aced this test, too.

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