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Tests Show Cockatoo Is No Bird-Brain

posted 4 Jul 2013, 08:36 by Mpelembe   [ updated 4 Jul 2013, 08:36 ]

Goffin's cockatoo, a bird species native to Indonesia, has revealed hidden depths of intelligence in a series of experiments requiring solutions to complex problems. A team of scientists say they were surprised at the determination and problem-solving skills shown by ten untrained birds when challenged to unlock a box containing a treat.

 VIENNAAUSTRIA (RECENT) (AUERSPERG, KACELNIK AND VON BAYERN) -  A team of scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute, has reported in PLOS ONE a study in which ten untrained Goffin's cockatoos [Cacatua goffini] were presented with a box showing a cashew nut behind a transparent door. The door was secured by a series of five different interlocking devices, each one jamming the next one along in the series.

To retrieve the nut the birds had to first remove a pin, then a screw, then a bolt, then turn a wheel 90 degrees, and then shift a latch sideways. One bird, called 'Pipin', cracked the problem unassisted in less than two hours. Others did it after being helped either by being presented with the series of locks incrementally or by being allowed to watch another bird complete the process.

The scientists were interested in the birds' progress towards the solution, and on what they had learned once they had solved the problem.

The team found that the birds worked determinedly to sort one obstacle after another even though they were only rewarded with the nut once they had solved the problem presented by all five devices.

The scientists suggest that the birds seemed to progress as if they employed a 'cognitive ratchet' process where tasks once learned were rarely forgotten the next time.

After the cockatoos mastered the entire sequence the scientists investigated whether the birds had learnt how to repeat a sequence of actions or instead responded to the effect of each lock.

Dr Alice Auersperg, who led the study at the Goffin Laboratory at Vienna University, said: "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. Statistical analysis showed that they reacted to the changes with immediate sensitivity to the novel situation."

Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, a co-author of the study, said: "We cannot prove that the birds understand the physical structure of the problem as an adult human would, but we can infer from their behaviour that they are sensitive to how objects act on each other, and that they can learn to progress towards a distant goal without being rewarded step-by-step."