From switchblades to smartphones, humans keep inventing ever more sophisticated tools. However, the notion that tool use is a uniquely human trait was shattered in the 1960s, when Jane Goodall observed our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, recovering termites from burrows with plucked branches.
Tool use among non-human animals is hotly debated. It is often thought that a large brain is needed to understand the properties of objects, how to accurately manipulate them, and how to teach this to other members of a species.
Until recently, humans and chimpanzees were the dominant tool-using species. They were considered to be the only species that used “toolsets”, where a collection of different tools are used to accomplish a task. They were also considered to be the only animals that carried tool sets in anticipation of needing them later.
A third species joined the exclusive club of toolkit makers in 2021, when scientists in Indonesia saw wild Goffin cockatoos using three distinct types of tools to extract seeds from fruit. And in research published this week, researchers have shown that Goffin’s cockatoos can also take the next logical leap, carrying a set of tools they’ll need for a future task.
Brilliant and enigmatic creatures
Parrots proved to be something of an enigma. They are known to be highly intelligent creatures, but they have rarely been observed using tools in the wild.
Interestingly, the only parrot species known to regularly use tools in the wild is Australia’s own palm cockatoo, which uses them in a very unusual way. Males in northern Australia “make” drumsticks and seed tools to use during their complex mating displays. They grasp the stick or pod with their left foot and strike it against a hollow log in a rhythmic performance, with all the hallmarks of human instrumental music.
The 2021 study of wild Goffin cockatoos was particularly significant, as it showed that the birds’ tools were similar in complexity to those made by chimpanzees, meaning their cognitive abilities could be directly compared.
A small number of Goffin’s cockatoos have been seen creating a set of tools designed for three different purposes – wedging, slicing and scooping – and using them sequentially to access seeds in fruit. This requires brain power similar to a chimpanzee’s method of using various tools when fishing for termites.
An early hurdle in interpreting chimpanzee use of toolkits was that no one could show whether they viewed a collection of small tasks as a problem or whether they used single tools to solve separate problems.
The researchers finally solved this when they observed the chimpanzees not just carrying their toolkits around with them, but doing so flexibly and according to the exact problems they faced. They must have thought of it from beginning to end!
This is precisely what Goffin’s cockatoos have been shown to do (albeit in a captive environment). They have been confirmed as the third species that can not only use tools, but also carry tool sets in anticipation of needing them later.
Inspired by the toolkits that chimpanzees use and carry in the wild to extract termites from the soil, the study authors designed clever experiments to test Goffin’s cockatoos under similar circumstances.
The birds, initially ten in total, had to extract cashews from boxes that required one or two types of tools. They were tested in a variety of ways to examine their flexibility and innovation, but the piece de resistance came when reaching the box with the tools required additional movement, including climbing a ladder and flying horizontally and vertically.
Although only five of the ten birds made it through the previous experiments, four of those who did tended to carry both tools at once, expecting to need them to open the two-tool box. In other words, these birds could categorize both tools as a “toolset” and use them accordingly. Mission Accomplished!
Nothing wrong with a bird brain
But what about the need for a big brain for complex tasks?
Like primates, some species of birds have enlarged forebrains that give them enhanced cognitive abilities, including perception and innovation, understanding the mental states of others, symbolic communication, episodic memory, and planning ahead.
Parrots are especially gifted with these skills, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they can use tool sets as easily as chimpanzees. Instead, what is surprising is that more parrots have not been seen carrying tool sets for future use.
It must be concluded that this is because wild parrots rarely have problems that require it. Parrots have powerful feet and beaks that allow them to reach the hardest places and break the toughest fruits and seeds. However, bright individuals in captivity can spontaneously invent new tools to solve new problems – so there is no doubt how capable they are.
This new study is further proof that parrots belong to Mensa’s unique version of the animal world. Between the thoughtful planning shown by Goffin’s cockatoos and the palm cockatoo’s ability to play instruments, it seems we’ve only scratched the surface of what these remarkable birds can achieve.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Image credit: Thomas SuchanekCC BY-SA