Animal IQ

Cockatoos Can Make, Use, and Even Reuse Their Own Tools

For centuries, humans liked to pat ourselves on our collective backs for being the only species to use tools. Boy, were we wrong! We've since discovered that there's a long list of animals that use tools, and many that make their own. The Goffin's cockatoo, a species of parrot native to Indonesia, is the latest to be heralded for its MacGyver-like abilities to create tools out of everyday objects and put them to use again and again, and scientists are intent on learning more.

Cockatoo uses a tool to retrieve a piece of food.

Not Your Average Bird Brain

Goffin's cockatoos are white birds with pinkish feathers around their eyes that, at roughly 12 inches long, are comparatively small among their cockatoo brethren. But what they lack in stature, they make up for in smarts, impressing researchers (and likely frustrating their owners) by learning stealthy tricks such as picking locks and opening their cages.

In 2012, researchers reported on a particularly clever Goffin named Figaro who taught himself how to bite long splinters out of the wooden beams of his cage and use them to guide out-of-reach morsels of food into eating distance. His feathery companions took note and began making tools on their own. Their ingenuity intrigued researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna and the University of Oxford, who wanted to find out whether the birds realized that an elongated object was necessary to reach food placed certain distance away from their cage, or if the natural shape of splinters coincidentally made them perfectly suited for the task.

Cockatoo makes a tool out of a piece of cardboard.

Cockatoo Craftsmen

To test the birds' toolmaking abilities, the researchers supplied them with a number of materials including cardboard, wood, twigs, and beeswax, and let them get to work. While their attempts with beeswax were unsuccessful (we're not sure we could make tools from beeswax, either), many of the birds were able to make tools out of the other three materials. They even developed unique strategies for each one, such as trimming leaves and excess branches off of the twigs.

In addition to making tools, some of the birds in the study recognized that the tools could be used more than once. They even did things to keep them safe, such as holding on to their splinter tool instead of dropping it once it had successfully fetched food. Because the birds used a variety of methods to preserve their tools, such as holding in their claws continuously or temporarily putting it aside, the scientists believe that the behavior wasn't inborn but learned. That makes it all the more promising that birds could expand on both their problem-solving and tool-making skills in the future.

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Written by Jamie Ludwig June 5, 2017

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