Smart Birds: Cockatoos Crack Complex Lock Puzzle (Video)

First Posted: Jul 05, 2013 10:45 AM EDT

Parrots are smart birds, using their feet and beaks like hands as they perform tricks. Some species can imitate human speech, sounding off words by the dozen or even the score. Now, scientists have discovered that cockatoos are even more intelligent than we thought. The birds can solve complex mechanical problems that involve undoing a series of locks one after another.

Goffin's cockatoos are native to Indonesia. Highly prized as pets, these birds are extremely social and affectionate. With the ability to learn words and even songs, these cockatoos are known for their intelligence.

Yet how smart are these birds? Researchers wanted to find out. That's why they decided to test them by presenting the cockatoos with a puzzle. A box showed food behind a transparent door secured by a series of five different interlocking devices, each one jamming the next along in the series. In order to actually retrieve the nut, the birds had to first remove a pin, then a screw, then a bolt and then turn a wheel 90 degrees. They then had to shift a latch sideways.

It turns out that this puzzle was no sweat for the birds. One of the cockatoos, named Pipin, was actually able to crack the problem in less than two hours without any help. The other birds also managed the problem after being presented with the locks incrementally or being allowed to watch a skilled partner perform the task.

It wasn't just the ability to solve the puzzle that was impressive, though; it was also the way the birds managed it. The cockatoos worked determinedly to sort one obstacle after another, even though they were only rewarded with the nut after they had solved all five locks. The birds seemed to be employing a "cognitive ratchet" process, which means that once they discovered how to solve one lock, they rarely had any difficulties with it again.

"After they had solved the initial problem, we confronted six subjects with so-called 'Transfer tasks' in which some locks were re-ordered, removed or made non-functional," said Alice Auersperg, who led the study, in a news release. "Statistical analysis showed that they reacted to the changes with immediate sensitivity to the novel situation."

In the end, the scientists were able to tell that the birds were sensitive as to how objects act on each other. In addition, they found that the cockatoos could learn to progress to a distant goal without being rewarded step-by-step.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

Want to see the puzzle-solving birds for yourself? Check out the video below, courtesy of YouTube.

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