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Da Vinci-code, bird-style: Cockatoos can solve complex puzzles

Ten untrained Goffin's cockatoos were able to complete a series of complex sequential tasks to access a nut reward.

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In a recent study, 10 cockatoos were able to solve a complex puzzle that involved a series of steps.

University of Oxford

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These are birds with intellects to rival even those of Alfred Hitchock.

Researchers have found that Goffin's cockatoos can complete a complicated sequence of tasks in pursuit of a reward, suggesting that species' cognitive ability to innovate solutions to an unfamiliar problem.

In the experiment, ten untrained cockatoos were presented with a complex device that, if a series of steps were completed, would proffer up a quarter of a cashew: first, the birds must remove a pin, then a screw, then a bolt; then turn a wheel 90 degrees and then a latch sideways. It took one of the birds, Pipin, less than two hours to finish the process unassisted in five different sessions. Other birds finished the puzzle with some help, after being offered either the series of locks incrementally or after watching a bird partner do the task.

"The cockatoos sudden improvement in removing the five locks, each of which required a different set of behaviors indicates pronounced levels of behavioral plasticity,sensorimotor control and practical memory in this species," said Alice Auersperg, who led the study at the Goffin Laboratory at Vienna University, in an email interview.

Except for work with chimpanzees, a nonhuman animal successfully completing more than three, completely novel, sequential steps without prior training has not been previously documented in scientific literature. Most similar studies test the animal’s ability to learn through reinforcement a set of behaviors. But this study was more interested in the cockatoo’s capacity to innovate: Could this Indonesian bird develop solutions to a problem not present in its natural environment? Did it understand the logic of working toward a series of tasks sequentially?

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