Photo: Flickr/Green Baron Pro (licensing)
“Bird-brained” is a term of insult some people direct at others they see as less intelligent. Yet if you are ever called bird-brained again, you might as well consider that a compliment.
Crows, ravens and jackdaws are well known for their great problem-solving skills and their adroit use of tools. Ravens have even been credited with possessing human-like intelligence.
Corvids aren’t the only birds with manifest intelligence, however. A team of scientists in Vienna, Austria, has observed wild Goffin’s cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana) making tools from treebark and using them for cracking open sea mangos so they can feast on the pits of the fruits.
The cockatoos have been observed creating as many as three types of different wooden tools, each with a different function, to extract seeds from inside the wild fruits, the scientists say.
“While Goffin’s cockatoos do not depend on tool-obtained resources, repeated observations of two temporarily captive wild birds and indications from free-ranging individuals suggest this behavior occurs in the wild, albeit not species-wide,” they explain in a new study.
In their bid to study the birds’ mental abilities close up, the Austrian researchers and their colleagues in Indonesia, where the cockatoos live in local forests, captured several birds from the wild and housed them in a temporary aviary. They then offered the birds sea mangos, a fruit toxic to people but loved by cockatoos, which also crack open the mangos’ hard pits to get to the pulpy material within them.
Performing the latter feat is no easy task for a creature with no hands, however. Undaunted, each of the more experienced cockatoos under observation grabbed a sea mango and carried it into a tree. There the birds broke off strips of wood from tree branches with their beaks and tongues, then proceeded to fashion them into several tools to perform different tasks, much like a cook uses different implements in the kitchen.
“One strip was sharpened and then used like a knife to cut open the pit covering. Another was formed into a wedge — the bird would drive it into a natural crack in a pit, forcing it to widen,” the scientists report in a press release on their findings. “Next, the bird would craft a spoon-shaped tool which it used, quite naturally, to dig out the pulpy material inside and then to drop its contents into its mouth.”
Interestingly, only older cockatoos used newly made tools this way while the younger members ate the fruit without cracking open the pit. This indicates that tool-making is a learned behavior among wild cockatoos.
The discovery, the scientists note, proves that some birds can perform considerable levels of dexterity for high-precision tasks even without hands. It has also demonstrated in a controlled setting that cockatoos can now join the ranks of ravens and crows in being highly intelligent feathered friends of ours.
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