Cockatoos prove once again they are clever

So did you hear the one about the cockatoo that figured out on her own, without ever having seen one, how to fashion a piece of straight wire into a fishing hook to get food?  Neither had scientists.  Until Betty came along. But then several years later other scientists came along and claimed Betty and her fellow cockatoos were not really being clever in their tool making and were probably just using an innate ability to build nests and use tools in the wild.  So researches set out to see which was true: Were these cockatoos just hardwired for tool use, or were they truly using novel problem-solving abilities on the fly?


Clever cockatoos bend hooks into straight wire to fish for food

Bending of a hook into wire to fish for the handle of a basket by crow Betty 15 years ago stunned the scientific world. Cognitive biologists studied tool making in an Indonesian cockatoo. Other than crows, cockatoos are not using tools in the wild. The birds manufactured hook tools out of straight wire without ever having seen or used a hook tool before.


In the early 2000s the New Caledonian crow Betty in Oxford shocked the world when she spontaneously bent a hook into a straight piece of wire while trying to retrieve a small out-off-reach basket with a handle from a vertical tube. Interestingly, when human children were tested on a similar task setup they showed great difficulties with coming up with a suitable solution until the age of nearly eight years. New Caledonian crows are specialized tools users in the wild and their ability to handle tools is innate.

Nevertheless, in this case Betty seemed to innovatively produce a novel behavioral sequence on an unknown material. At the time, studying cognition in birds was still a young area of research and thus her hook bending abilities became a textbook example of intelligent tool manufacture in animals. By now brain and behavioral research has shown that some birds such as corvids and parrots seem to possess complex cognition at similar levels as higher primates and show similar neuron counts in the respective brain regions.

Nevertheless, the studies on Betty the crow recently came under scrutiny when field researchers from the University of St Andrews found that wild New Caledonian crows used strikingly similar bending techniques to add curvature to the tool shafts of twig tools in the wild. They therefore suggested that Betty’s solution was hardly innovative but could be strongly influenced by predispositions from habitual tool use and nest building.

Researchers from the University of Vienna and the Veterinary University Vienna now tested another bird species the Goffin’s cockatoo on the same task setup…

Retrieving the reward from the vertical tube required the birds to bent a hook into the straight pipe cleaner to fish the basket out of the tube. The horizontal tube in turn required the birds to unbent the bent piece of wire to push the food out of the tube.

Several birds mastered the hook bending task and the unbending task…

“These findings are surprising as our cockatoos are neither specialized to tool assisted foraging as the New Caledonian crows nor are they bending sticks during nest construction, but breed in pre-existing tree holes. Considering that the tasks were solved by a limited number of birds combined with the fact that they used individual techniques for making their hooks supports the assumption that Goffin’s cockatoos have to actively invent the solution to the problem rather than retreating to inborn stereotyped behavioral routines…”

-Alice Auersperg, head of the Goffin Lab, Messerli Research Institute in Vienna


Journal Reference: I. B. Laumer, T. Bugnyar, S. A. Reber, A. M. I. Auersperg. Can hook-bending be let off the hook? Bending/unbending of pliant tools by cockatoos. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2017; 284 (1862): 20171026 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1026