Home Science These cockatoos can use various tools to get food.

These cockatoos can use various tools to get food.

These cockatoos can use various tools to get food.

The cockatoos of the Tanimbar Islands (Indonesia), small white parrots also known as Goffiniana cockatoos, joined the short list of animals capable of manipulating more than one object to obtain food.

According to a study published in the journal Current Biology, these birds can maneuver different materials when they need to, a practice that has only been seen before in our closest relatives, chimpanzees.

A recent workcarried out with cockatoos of this species captured in the wild, showed that up to three different tools can be used to extract seeds from a fruit.

Goffinian cockatoos are able to recognize when they must use more than one object to get the desired food: cashews

However, until now it was not clear whether the specimens saw these materials as a set to solve any need. The other possibility was that it was a succession of individual tasks with a single objective, i.e. they simply used the relevant instrument as needed.

But now, the results of an investigation by the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna (Austria), through controlled experiments, reveal that Goffinian cockatoos are able to recognize when they should use more than one object to get the desired food: cashews.

“The flexibility of these birds is impressive”, argues Antonio Osuna-Mascaró, an evolutionary biologist and one of the authors of the research: “With this experiment, we can say that, like chimpanzees, Goffinian cockatoos can not only use various tools, but also they know they are using them to achieve something”, he emphasizes.

Not only can Goffin’s Cockatoos use various tools, but they also know that they are using them to achieve something.

Antonio Osuna-Mascaro

The starting point for these scientists was to observe the behavior of chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle, in the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo. To hunt termites, these primates first use a blunt stick to make holes in the nest and then insert a kind of flexible tube or probe to capture the insects.

dexterity cockatoos

Following this model, the researchers designed the experiment with the objective of evaluating whether cockatoos could capture cashews. So they were given two instruments: a pointed stick and half a plastic straw, with which they had to first pierce the transparent paper membrane of a box and then extract their reward.

The results were revealing: seven of the ten tested cockatoos were able to extract the cashews themselves by piercing the membrane, with two completing the task in 35 seconds on the first attempt. But each of them managed a different technique. This species has no comparable tactics in the wild, and therefore this tendency is unlikely to respond to innate habits.

The cockatoos used a pointed stick to cut through a membrane and half a straw to extract their reward: cashew nuts.

On the other hand, the research team also wanted to see if these Goffinian birds had the ability to use these elements depending on the situation. For this, some specimens were challenged to remove the cashew nut from a barrier box while others did not have this obstacle. On this occasion, both groups received the same materials (a short stick and a plastic straw), but only those who faced a barrier had to use the corresponding utensil.

Osuna-Mascaró points out that all the cockatoos overcame the challenge in a short time and were also able to know when it was enough to use a single piece: “the birds behaved in a curious way because when selecting which object to use, they first held one and released it, then another and threw it away, returned it to the first one, etc. In fact, it specifies that when these animals acted like this, they finally received their reward.

Ability to move multiple objects

Likewise, the ability of cockatoos to move the short stick and the plastic straw as a single “package” to remove the cashew nut was evaluated. In this sense, they submitted these birds to a series of tests increasing the difficulty: first they had to climb a small ladder, then they had to fly horizontally and finally they had to fly vertically carrying the aforementioned instruments.

The result was that most cockatoos moved both the stick and the straw, suggesting that they knew in advance that they would have to use both to appropriate the food.

Most cockatoos handled both the stick and the straw, suggesting that they knew in advance that they should use both to appropriate the food.

“We didn’t know for sure whether cockatoos would carry two materials with them at the same time,” acknowledges co-author Alice Auersperg, a cognitive biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna: “It was a bit risky, because I’ve seen birds that can combine elements in a form playful, but they rarely carry more than one”.

There is still much to be learned about cockatoos’ tool use, according to the researchers. “In terms of technical cognition and tool use, parrots have been underestimated and understudied,” says Auersperg.

“We learned how skillful these cockatoos are when using a set of tools, but there are challenges ahead”, says Osuna-Mascaró, who concludes: “Their behavior seems very interesting to us and we are going to use it to explore their decision-making and their metacognition, that is, your ability to recognize your own knowledge”.


Osuna-Mascaró et al. “Flexible toolkit transport in Goffin’s cockatoos”. Current Biology. 2023

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