Who's a clever bird? Cockatoos solve five-lock problem

Goffin's cockatoos
We could show that the birds do not simply run through a fixed sequence of learned behaviours but flexibly and sensibly adjust their actions to certain changes in the sequence, omitting the now irrelevant parts.
Dr Alice Auersperg
An international team of scientists from the University of Vienna have shown that an Indonesian parrot species is able to solve a five-lock problem in order to retrieve a nut…

The researchers, led by Dr Alice Auersperg from the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, investigated the ability of ten untrained Goffin’s cockatoos to solve a complex problem involving a series of five interlocking devices.

Such sequential problems – where solving one problem has to be addressed before the next problem can be accessed – are particularly challenging, since they require the ability to distance oneself spatially and mentally from a desired goal object. In these experiments, the reward was a nut behind a transparent door and the cockatoos were required to perform, in order, five different types of motor action to retrieve it.

Also known as Tanimbar corellas, Goffin’s cockatoos originate from an island archipelago in Indonesia, naturally inhabiting tropical dry forests. They are highly social, playful and extremely curious birds and, as such, have proved popular with aviculturists. As the paper – which appeared in the open access journal PLOS ONE – reveals, one of the 10 Goffin’s cockatoos tested made short work of the five-lock problem.

"The Goffin Lab is relatively young – it was only set up in fall 2010 – but we have been concentrating our investigations so far on physical cognition and problem solving," Dr Auersperg explained.

"Previously we have focused mainly on the Goffin cockatoo’s capacity for tool use, as in our Current Biology paper on spontaneous innovation in tool manufacture in this species, for example."

When confronted with the five-lock problem, many of the cockatoos Dr Auersperg and her colleagues observed displayed the same flexibility and determination. An adult male named Pipin completed the task in less than two hours, while a further five birds were able to retrieve the nut after watching one of their conspecifics do it or facing each step incrementally. They first had to remove a pin, then a screw, then a bolt, then turn a wheel through 90 degrees before shifting a latch sideways. Five-step problem solving of this kind without prior training has only ever been observed before in chimpanzees using tool sets.

Cockatoo opening lock
’Muppet’ the Goffin’s cockatoo solves the bolt-type lock
To prove that the birds were not simply following a set of learned behaviours in sequence, the team conducted transfer tasks by making parts of the sequence redundant.

"We showed that the birds do not simply run through a fixed sequence of learned behaviours, but flexibly and sensibly adjust their actions to certain changes in the sequence, omitting the now irrelevant parts," said Dr Auersperg. "Since this response was spontaneously correct for most, but not all, of the transfer tasks it is likely that the birds have learned something about the effect that the locks have on one another. However, it will require further investigation to ascertain the extent to which they understand the problem."

The findings suggest that the Goffin’s cockatoos’ habit of exploring their environment with their bills, tongues and feet contributes to their sudden and often error-free improvement in these tasks. It seems that their persistence pays off, with anticipation of the reward driving a ‘cognitive ratchet’ process in which they rarely have trouble with the same device twice.

"The results of the acquisition task indicate pronounced levels of behavioural plasticity, sensorimotor control and practical memory in this species, while the results of transfer tasks indicate high flexibility and some functional inference," Dr Auersperg told ScienceOmega.com. I concluded by asking whether she believes the birds could be capable of completing even more complex tasks than these.

"There is more room for investigation but it is difficult to rank the technical tasks presented to our subject now and in the past in terms of general complexity," Dr Auersperg responded.


Read the full text of the article, Explorative Learning and Functional Inferences on a Five-Step Means-Means-End Problem in Goffin’s Cockatoos (Cacatua goffini)...

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