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Clever Cockatoos’ Tool Use Is Off the Hook

And puts young human children to shame.

The Goffin’s cockatoo, it turns out, is no featherbrain. At the University of Vienna, researchers were astounded and delighted when a crackle of cockatoos fashioned hooks out of green pipe cleaners to extract a tantalizing piece of cashew from a clear tube. The crowning glory of this achievement? Many had likely never seen a hook before.

In a second test, they had to unbend their original pipe cleaner to push food out of a different tube. Several birds mastered one task or the other, and one was even able to solve both problems. Solutions, researcher Isabelle Laumer said in a release from the university, were highly individualized, and their success seemed to have no bearing on their prior experience with similar tasks.

That cockatoos can solve these kinds of problems at all is surprising. In the wild, cockatoos don’t “specialize” in what is called “tool-assisted foraging,” said Alice Auersperg, head of the Goffin Lab where the experiments took place. “Goffin’s cockatoos have to actively invent the solution to the problem, rather than retreating to inborn stereotyped behavioral routines,” she said. “It seems that, at least for now and for this particular species, we can get the innovative aspect of hook bending off the hook.”

The experiments come on the back of experiments conducted with New Caledonian crows. In the early 2000s, a crow named Betty shocked the scientific community when she bent wire into a hook to retrieve a small basket from a tube. Studies since have suggested that this is a common behavior for the species, as similar behaviors were observed in the wild. At that time, the study of cognition in birds was unusual, but now scientists say that crows and parrots seem to be as capable of certain complex thoughts and behaviors as monkeys, apes, and humans, and have similar neuron counts in the corresponding brain regions.

What exactly constitutes tool use among animals has long been the source of some debate. Some scientists are content to describe it as “an object carried or maintained for future use,” while others say that to be a true tool it must have been “modified to fit a purpose” or be “used in some way to cause a change in the environment.” By either definition, tool use has been observed throughout the animal kingdom. In 1990, Jane Goodall, the British primatologist, famously observed a chimpanzee using a blade of grass like a Fun Dip stick to extract termites from their nests. Other chimps and bonobos have fashioned proto-sponges out of leaves and moss to wash themselves, or created shelters from the rain out of leaves. Elephants use branches to swat away flies, dolphins use conch shells to scoop up fish, wild bears use stones to exfoliate. Even bees can be taught to use tools or pull a string to receive a reward.

Actually making tools, as the crows and cockatoos in the experiments appear to, is far rarer and shows even greater cognitive ability. Birds are particularly impressive in this regard. Crows can fashion probes out of twigs or wire to impale larvae, and woodpecker finches adapt cactus spines to help them catch or spear slow-moving insects. This may be the first time Goffin’s cockatoos have been seen altering tools in this way, but they are in good parrot company. The kea, a New Zealand mountain parrot, strips twigs and puts them into traps to trigger them—apparently only because they like the banging noise they make.

Whatever the reason, corvids and parrots put human children to shame when it comes to problem solving of this sort. Most human children fail the same task set to the cockatoos completely up to the age of five, and it’s not until they get to about eight that they’re able to successfully bend the wire.