Cockatoos match objects into corresponding frames in a tool-use task

November 8, 2017, University of Vienna
Cornelia Habl Vienna tested Goffin's cockatoos in a tool use task. Credit: University of Vienna

Cognitive biologists from the University of Vienna and the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna tested Goffin cockatoos in a tool use task, requiring the birds to move objects in relation to a surface. The parrots were not only able to select the correct key but also required fewer placement attempts to align simple shapes than primates in a similar study.

Fitting an into a matching outline such as inserting a key into a keyhole or inserting the appropriate screwdriver bit into a screw is a recurrent part of many human technical procedures and starts to develop in the first years of our life. In posting games involving coins or letters, two-year-old children also start rotating objects into the proper position before bringing it into contact with a slot. This is largely because, when moving objects in space, they start using other objects in their environment rather than only their own body as reference points: This is called an allocentric frame of reference. It is therefore not surprising that this is an important precondition for the onset of tool use in young infants, such as using a spoon or a rake.

Another important aspect of fitting tasks is geometry and symmetry. For example, inserting a circle into a matching cutout requires no particular orientation while a non-symmetrical object has only one possible correct orientation for insertion. Humans can insert a ball at already one year of age, but require another year before they can insert a cube. Older children (3-4) start rotating and comparing the objects to the cutout while holding them above before they try to insert them. Interestingly, such visual alignment seems to be missing in higher primates such as capuchin monkeys and apes. Despite their considerable dexterity they can only fit simple shapes into corresponding frames and require many placement attempts.

Goffin's cockatoos are highly playful and inventive parrots, renowned for their intelligence and their ability to develop sophisticated forms of tool use in captivity.

Cornelia Habl and Alice Auersperg from the University of Vienna and the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna now tested their matching abilities in a setup that required the use of an object as a tool to obtain a food reward.

This parrot is not a specialized tool user in the wild but has shown the capacity to invent and use different types of tools in captivity. Credit: Bene Croy
The study

"We used a box with an exchangeable, transparent front featuring a shaped hole at its centre. When an object was successfully inserted through the hole, a collapsible platform inside the box released a tasty nut at the lower end" says Cornelia Habl who conducted the study at the Goffin Lab in Vienna. "The birds selected the correctly shaped objects from a selection of up to five different shapes almost immediately without requiring any training." She continues: "Furthermore, they required fewer placement attempts to align simple shapes (circle, square, triangle) than non-human primates. Another interesting finding was that they turned complex object shapes in a way that would minimise their effort during insertion. For example, a cross shaped object would be turned at 90°, so only two protrusions would have to be inserted instead of four, or an L-shaped object with one protrusion facing forward and backward."

The animals had to choose the correct 'key' out of five. Credit: Bene Croy
"This indicates that the animals do indeed possess an allocentric frame of reference when moving objects in space similar to two-year-old toddlers" says Alice Auersperg, head of the Goffin Lab in Vienna: "Our findings suggest that the ability to align objects to a corresponding substrate groove is not limited to animals with hand-like appendices. Birds rely more on visual cues than primates." Follow up research on this study will focus on fine details of object alignment and beak-tongue actions on the object before and during insertion, to evaluate the role of vision in their object placement.

Explore further: Show us how you play and it may tell us who you are

More information: The keybox: Shape-frame fitting during tool use in Goffin's cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana): Cornelia Habl, Alice Auersperg. PLoS ONE, 2017. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0186859

Related Stories

Show us how you play and it may tell us who you are

December 15, 2014

The ways animals play with inedible objects may be precursors of functional behaviors such as tool use and goal directed object manipulation. For these reasons, species of high technical intelligence are also expected to ...

Cockatoos keep their tools safe

May 16, 2017

Only a few animal species such as New Caledonian crows or some primates have so far been found to habitually use tools. Even fewer can manufacture their own tools. Nevertheless, the Goffin's cockatoo, an Indonesian parrot, ...

Research reveals new clues about how humans become tool users

October 7, 2015

New research from the University of Georgia department of psychology gives researchers a unique glimpse at how humans develop an ability to use tools in childhood while nonhuman primates—such as capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees—remain ...

Cockatoos know what is going on behind barriers

July 29, 2013

How do you know that the cookies are still there although they have been placed out of your sight into the drawer? How do you know when and where a car that has driven into a tunnel will reappear? The ability to represent ...

Recommended for you

When does one of the central ideas in economics work?

February 20, 2019

The concept of equilibrium is one of the most central ideas in economics. It is one of the core assumptions in the vast majority of economic models, including models used by policymakers on issues ranging from monetary policy ...

In colliding galaxies, a pipsqueak shines bright

February 20, 2019

In the nearby Whirlpool galaxy and its companion galaxy, M51b, two supermassive black holes heat up and devour surrounding material. These two monsters should be the most luminous X-ray sources in sight, but a new study using ...

Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

February 20, 2019

Why do zebras have stripes? A study published in PLOS ONE today takes us another step closer to answering this puzzling question and to understanding how stripes actually work.

Correlated nucleons may solve 35-year-old mystery

February 20, 2019

A careful re-analysis of data taken at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility has revealed a possible link between correlated protons and neutrons in the nucleus and a 35-year-old mystery. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.