Cockatoos Pick Locks For Nuts
July 4, 2013

Cockatoos Can Pick A Puzzle Lock For A Nut

Watch the video "Cockatoos Pick Puzzle Locks"

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Vienna have trained Goffin's cockatoos to unlock a series of locks before receiving their food, demonstrating the birds are capable of learning and completing long, complex tasks for rewards.

Working together with the Max Planck Institute, the team built a box with five locks, each one barring the way to the next. Once each of these interlocking devices had been undone, the birds could then access a reward (such as a nut) which was locked away behind a clear plastic door. The birds could see the reward in the box but had to first learn not only how to unlock the devices with their beaks and claws but also to do it in a specific order. According to the resulting paper from this study, the cockatoos were able to figure out the locks relatively quickly, once they successfully unlocked the box once, the birds rarely made mistakes in successive attempts.

"The birds' sudden and often errorless improvement and response to changes indicates pronounced behavioral plasticity and practical memory," said Dr. Auguste von Bayern of Oxford University, co-author of the paper.

"We believe that they are aided by species characteristics such as intense curiosity, tactile exploration techniques and persistence: cockatoos explore surrounding objects with their bill, tongue and feet. A purely visual explorer may have never detected that they could move the locks."

In a video of the birds unlocking each of the five devices to get to the nut, the cockatoos are focused and able to perform their tasks quickly and efficiently. The first bird shown in the video completes all five locks before receiving its reward. First the birds had to pull a pin from a screw in the second lock, a task which was easily done by the birds in the demonstration video. Next, the birds had to unscrew the bolt which held a perpendicular bolt in place. The first bird in the video was able to unscrew this bolt using its mouth while a second bird used its claw.

With the bolt removed from the second lock, the bolt or large pin in the third lock could then be taken out of its holder, freeing up the fourth lock. Here, the birds had to turn a metal disc and remove it. This metal disc, in turn, blocked the final lock; a simple slider lock which held the clear door closed. With the metal disc turned and the slider lock moved, the door opened freely and the bird could get its nut.

One bird in particular was able to solve the lock riddle in under two hours. Several of the birds were able to work through the task completely unassisted, while others who had issues were able to improve their approach by watching a skilled partner successfully retrieve the nut.

According to Dr Alice Auersperg, who led the study at the Goffin Laboratory at Vienna University, the birds were not simply learning a repeatable task.

"After they had solved the initial problem, we confronted six subjects with so-called 'transfer tasks' in which some locks were re-ordered, removed, or made non-functional. Statistical analysis showed that they reacted to the changes with immediate sensitivity to the novel situation."

While this study does not prove the Goffin's cockatoos understand physical structures in the same way humans do, it does prove the birds understand the relationship between two physical objects.