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Brainy Cockatoos Make Economic Decisions in Tool Use Experiments

Jun 29, 2016 10:37 AM EDT

Cockatoos, previously found to be adept at using tools, have now shown that they have the intelligence to make good economic choices over the availability of desirable items. The discovery was announced by Goffin Lab scientists on the University of Vienna web page.

The biology world has been seeing evidence pile up in favor of avian intelligence, particularly among the Psittaciformes, which comprise parrots and cockatoos. These types of birds have showed their capability to use tools effectively, in ways that invite comparison to tool use among primates.

A recent series of experiments has uncovered displays of intelligent tool use among specimens of Goffin's cockatoos from Indonesia. The research was conducted by Isabelle Laumer, Alice Auersperg, and Thomas Bugnyar from the University of Vienna and the Veterinary University of Vienna.

The birds had previously performed well in experiments based on the famous "marshmallow test" in psychology. The Goffin's cockatoos exhibited the ability to control their natural impulses, withholding their consumption of immediately available food in anticipation of receiving a more desirable treat in the future. The new experiment required the birds to make a choice between an immediately available food item and a tool that they could use to gain access to a better type of food.

The experiment was set up as follows: The birds were presented with either of two tools. One, a stick that could be used to rake food into their reach, and two, a ball that could be dropped into a tube to knock a treat out into the open. The experiment also involved two types of food items that differed in their desirability to the birds: cashew nuts and pecans. The cockatoos loved cashew nuts, while they liked pecans but would disdain them in favor of cashews if they could. Cashews were high-value food items compared to low-value pecans, in the eyes of the birds.

The birds were tested by having a cockatoo choose between a food item or a tool (which they could use to obtain a hard-to-reach treat). Once a choice was made, the item not picked was taken away. In the tests, the birds exhibited flexibility in responding based on the situation at hand.

For example, when presented with a high-value food item alongside a tool, the birds picked the food over the tool. When presented with a low-value food item alongside a tool, the birds picked the tool in the cases where it could be used to get a high-value treat, but they picked the food in the cases where the tool was of the wrong type or the hard-to-reach food item was of low value.

In the flexibility of their responses, the birds showed that they were not merely displaying trained behaviors, but exhibiting actual decision making influenced by the "economics" of item availability.

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