VIENNA, Austria — That’s not a golfer making a birdie, that’s a birdie making golf history! Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna say cockatoos are capable of using complex tools — just like early humans — to play golf.
The Austrian team demonstrated how the birds use primate-level, tool-using abilities in a test inspired by the classic 18-hole game. Their study compared the problem-solving cockatoos to our ancestors, who invented their first compound tools by joining two objects firmly together to create a new object, such as pointed spears or axes.
In this case, the birds held a stick with their beak to guide a ball into a collapsible platform to release a treat. Dr. Antonio Osuna-Mascaró investigated the innovative problem-solving abilities of a particularly tool-adept bird: the Goffin’s cockatoo. He came up with the idea of a golf-influenced task after passing a course on the way to his laboratory.
What does cockatoo golf look like?
The task consisted of a platform with a green carpet encased inside a box with a frontal grid. On each side of this “green” was a rectangular “hole” with a collapsible platform underneath. During testing, one of these two collapsible platforms was visibly baited with a cashew nut.
The frontal grid of the box had a central hole that allowed for the insertion of a heavy white marble onto the center of the green. The marble would, however, not fit through the rest of the grid.
Nevertheless, a stick could be inserted and directed in a way that it would push the marble into one of the holes on top of the collapsible platforms, releasing the food reward — provided the cockatoo sank their putt in the correct hole.
“I wanted to design an experiment to test to what extent these amazing creatures pay attention to simultaneous actions during their tool use,” Dr. Osuna-Mascaró explains in a university release.
“I couldn’t just mimic the techniques employed by other tool users such as chimpanzees when cracking nuts with stones because cockatoos do not have hands; I thus had to rely on a tasks that allows for movements that are more natural to these animals,” the researcher continues.
“A golf-like challenge might allow me to test the animal’s ability to conduct composite tool actions.”
Figaro: The Tiger Woods of cockatoos
Several cockatoos completed this golfing task, but an adult male named Figaro outperformed most of his competitors and was able to solve the test in his first attempt. In fact, Figaro only failed on one occasion. Researchers say the crafty bird cheated by finding an error in the mechanism that allowed him to solve it without the use of tools.
“Three of our cockatoos figured out how to use the stick to shinny the ball into the correct hole and secure a reward, a real demonstration of tool innovation at a very high level,” Dr. Osuna-Mascaró says.
“One of the most amazing aspect of the process was to observe how these animals each invented their own individual technique in how to grip the stick and hit the ball, sometimes with astonishing dexterity. One of the birds operated the stick while holding it between the mandibles, one between the beak tip and tongue and one with his claw, similar to a primate.”
Eleven cockatoos participated in this study, seven adult males and four adult females. Three found the solution by themselves. Two more cockatoos solved the puzzle, but they did not reach the specific goal to count as an “official” success. Six cockatoos were unable to find the solution.
To solve the experiment, the cockatoos first had to push the marble into the box, so that it falls in the center of the golfing green. Then, they had to push it with the stick towards one of the collapsible platforms on the sides, where the prize – a piece of cashew nut – sat waiting for them.
Cockatoos show amazing intelligence
Study authors say the cockatoos have never used tools in combination and had no knowledge of how to solve the test beforehand. The only knowledge they had was that the side platforms were collapsible.
Another important fact is that this experiment requires a series of abilities very similar to the nut cracking of chimpanzees. However, chimpanzees need years of practice to master this skill. These cockatoos were able to master the golfing challenge within a handful of opportunities.
At the beginning, it took the birds close to the 10-minute time limit to complete the task. After a few trials, however, their times started falling fast. Figaro, for example, dropped his time drastically by the fourth trial — setting a record of just six seconds on one try!
“I believe that studying which spatial relationships animals are attending to and how they are using them for enabling tool innovations will be key to getting us better insight into the evolution of technology. Enhancing our understanding of the onset of complex tool use in particular is thus currently a focus of our research team,” says Prof. Alice Auersperg, of the university’s Goffin Lab at the Messerli Research Institute.
A key trait of evolution
Researchers note that associative tool use has been an important part in human technological evolution. It means that people use more than one object in order to achieve a common purpose. The team says it’s extremely rare for animals to display composite and compound tool use.
“In their most efficient forms, composite tools require some form of stability between the two tools, this has given rise to the bow, the sling, or the spear-thrower,” researchers write in a statement.
On the other hand, composite tools which allow both tools to move freely have given rise to new kinds of recreational activities. Sports like field hockey, cricket, or golf are perfect examples of this.
Researchers conclude that the small parrots in this experiment show an ability to learn how to use tools just like us, through exploration and play. Moreover, their ability to do this may be even more interesting because animals can invent these tools in the wild — but generally don’t need them to survive.
The findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports.
South West News Service writer Dean Murray contributed to this report.