Animal tool is already a rare phenomenon, mostly seen among primates. Some birds have also been shown to use tools, including the Goffin’s cockatoo. Recent research published in Scientific Reports shows that not only can they use multiple tool types, but they are also capable of adapting their tool use to different situations.
Scientists from the University of Vienna, collaborating with the Veterinary University of Vienna, tested Goffin’s cockatoos to see how flexible they were when making decisions about tools. The researchers used two different types of rewards. One reward was pecans, a low value food item that the cockatoos liked. The other food item was a high value reward, cashew nuts, which they would normally pick over a pecan. The scientists also used two different types of contraptions that could hold a piece of food and needed to be opened with a tool. One contraption could only be operated by dropping a ball inside, the other needed to be poked with a stick.
The birds were then shown one of the food rewards and one of the tools. They were also shown one of the contraptions, containing a different food reward. They could choose either the food item or the tool but once the bird made a decision, the other item was immediately taken away. The cockatoos showed adaptability in making their choices. When offered the low value reward (pecan) and the tool to an apparatus containing a high value reward (cashew), the cockatoos chose the tool in order to get the cashew. They only chose the tool if it was the proper tool to open the apparatus they were just shown, demonstrating that the cockatoos had a high level of understanding. The birds did struggle when two contraptions were shown at the same time but contained different food rewards. The authors noted that they might have hit a limit to the cockatoos’ working memory.
Previous studies have shown that primates can control immediate impulses in order to potentially gain more in the future, including when tool use is involved. Now, researchers have found that Goffin cockatoos are capable of the same adaptable decision-making. The authors concluded that since Goffin cockatoos are not likely to run into these types of situations and tools in the wild, they must be working off general cognitive processing. In other words, flexible tool use isn’t restricted entirely to primates and specialists. Other animals thought to have a high level of intelligence, such as parrots, are capable of flexible decision-making involving tools.
B. Laumer et al, Flexible decision-making relative to reward quality and tool functionality in Goffin cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana). Scientific Reports (2016).