Imagine being presented with this in order to get to a snack.
Even worse, you’re a bird and you don’t have a screwdriver.
This puzzle is what scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute put in front of a bunch of untrained Goffin’s cockatoos.1 Upon opening these five interlocking mechanisms in the right order, the birds could get to a nut visible through a transparent window.
In case you’re wondering, the procedure the birds had to go through was to remove a pin, then a screw, then a bolt, then turn a wheel 90 degrees, and then shift a latch sideways. Of course, they were not told this before they started tinkering.
Of the ten birds, one turned out to be particularly capable: Pipin solved the whole sequence without any help in less than two hours. As the authors write in the recently published PLOS ONE paper, “sequential problem solving by non-humans involving more than three different steps, without prior training by shaping, as in Pipin’s case has never been reported.” But apart from this guy, seven other birds also solved at least part of the sequence. Five of them tackled the whole puzzle after doing it in separate steps first and/or watching another skilled bird (I’m guessing Pipin) do it.
After these billed geniuses did the whole puzzle, the scientists wanted to see whether the birds understood the effect of the locks on the availability of the food reward, or whether they were simply repeating an inflexible sequence of actions.
“We confronted our six test subjects with so-called ‘Transfer tasks’ in which parts of the sequence were rendered non-functional. For example, we removed single locks inside the structure to see whether the birds would ignore the now ineffective parts above the gap in the sequence. Our subjects reacted flexibly and sensitively to alterations of the locks’ sequencing and functionality. They omitted most irrelevant parts even if the entire constellation was scrambled,” explained Alice Auersperg, who led the study at the Goffin Lab at the University of Vienna.
Of course, the researchers, as any good scientists should, proceeded to explain the results with caution.
“We cannot prove that the birds understand the physical structure of the problem as an adult human would, but we can infer that their behaviour is sensitive to such structure, and they do seem capable of organising their learning towards a distant goal,” said co-author of the study, Alex Kacelnik from the University of Oxford. “It would be too easy to claim that the cockatoos understand the problem, but this claim will not be justified until we can reproduce the details of the animals’ response to a large battery of novel physical problems.”
Auguste von Byern from Oxford University noted: “The birds sudden and often errorless improvement indicates pronounced behavioural plasticity and practical memory.” The researchers noted that the cockatoos’ burglaring skills are helped by their belonging to an intensely curious species that explores the surrounding world with their bill, tongue and feet, not just visually.
You can watch Pipin and his friends pick the puzzle in the first video, and see how well the birds did in ‘Transfer tasks’ in the second one. (I just love how Pipin gets rid of the screw!)
I think this is almost as wonderful as the tool-using fish I’ve written about before.