In a study designed to learn more about the brains of birds, and possibly all brains, scientists have discovered that cockatoos can open locks.
Author of the study, Alex Kacelnik, professor of zoology at Oxford University, told ABC News that the birds themselves were “particularly keen on exploring new things.”
The study was set up with a cashew nut as bait behind five different kinds of obstacles. The birds had to move a thin metal bar blocking a small window, then pull a pin, turn a screw, remove a bolt, and rotate a wheel to get to the cashew. And, most importantly, they had to do those actions in the right order.
The birds proved up to this task. But then the researchers changed things up. Once the birds had solved the five locks in a row, researchers rearranged them. The research article explains that the birds handled the change-ups with ease, remembering how to do each stage independently, not just in the order they found them in the first time.
“Most birds showed a ratchet-like progress, rarely failing to solve a stage once they had done it once. In most transfer tests subjects reacted flexibly and sensitively to alterations of the locks’ sequencing and functionality, as expected from the presence of predictive inferences about mechanical interactions between the locks.”
“They’re sensitive to how the problem is organized,” Kacelnik said. “They do whatever they have to do in the new circumstances.”
Irene Pepperberg, an adjunct associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University, likened cockatoos to orangutans. “If you look at the apes, orangutans are the ones that open their cages and these puzzle boxes,” she said. “They’re patient, and they work at it. Cockatoos are exactly like that.”
She went on to explain that this research is about more than the intelligence of cockatoos. “They understand how each of these independent steps relates to the end goal,” she said. “It’s an amazing ability to have this representation.”