Cockatoo close-up against green forrest

Cockatoos learn tool use from each other

Goffin’s cockatoos can become proficient tool users by observing a “teacher” bird in action.


Gimme the gist

Goffin’s cockatoos (Cacatua goffini) are adorable Indonesian parrots. They’re also pretty smart and can be taught various tricks, which they pick up by watching and imitating.

Speaking of watching and imitating: Could cockatoos teach each other some tricks as well?

The answer, it turns, is yes.

Cockatoos aren’t tool users in their natural habitats, but they can definitely learn from a bird that already knows how to use a tool.

An experiment looked at two groups of cockatoos. The first group observed a “teacher” cockatoo named Figaro. They got to see him use a pre-made stick to fish out nuts from inside a metal cage. The second group watched so-called “ghost demonstrations,” where the tools moved seemingly by themselves, controlled by researchers using invisible magnets.

Once all the birds had their share of watching tool demonstrations, they were faced with a similar nut-fetching puzzle themselves. They even had the ready-to-use sticks nearby.

The birds in the first group, which saw Figaro do his thing, were a lot more active in trying to figure out how to use the stick. Half of them eventually ended up becoming skillful tool users themselves. In contrast, none of the birds in the “ghost demonstration” group learned how to get the nuts.

Perhaps most interestingly, the “students” didn’t just mindlessly mimic Figaro’s technique. Instead, they eventually developed their own methods of using the same tool to get the nuts out. So while cockatoos seem to need a mentor to show them what’s possible, they aren’t afraid of experimenting to achieve a similar result. This is called “emulation learning.”

What’s more, two of these successful student cockatoos could even learn to make their own sticks out of a block of wood by seeing Figaro do the same.

You can watch their attempts below. I found Pipin’s technique of pushing the stick with his tongue quite amusing—it’s at the 1:03 mark:


Gimme more

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Daniel Nest

I write stuff. I have a humor blog at Nest Expressed. I've written for Cracked and Listverse (where I'm also a freelance editor). You can find me on Twitter and Facebook.

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