Goffin's cockatoo by the sea

Goffin's cockatoo is capable of producing a set of three tools to help it extract seeds from sea mangos. ©SunyawitPhoto/Shutterstock

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Wild cockatoos observed making their own toolkit for seed extraction

Wild Goffin's cockatoos have been observed to make their own 'cutlery' when setting down to eat a meal of sea mangoes.

While this sort of behaviour has been observed in captive birds, this is the first time they have been seen to make tools in the wild. 

Researchers studying Goffin's cockatoo found that the parrot species was capable of making three different types of tool while tucking into the fruits.

Two wild cockatoos demonstrated their ability to fashion toolkits from tree branches, which they used to access the seed matter found within the stone of fruits.

Their actions are one of a few examples of non-primates making tools in the wild. Researchers hope to study the species more in depth in the coming years to discover how these behaviours originate.

Parrots have long been candidates for being tool users and manufacturers, sharing a number of characteristics with tool-using humans, chimpanzees and orangutans. Parrots have a relatively large brain, a prolonged upbringing by their parents and a complex social structure.

Tool use has also been hinted at in the palm cockatoo, with males producing a 'drumstick' for use in their displays to females.

However, while the birds are prolific at producing tools in captivity, the situation in the wild is less clear-cut. There have been suggestions of 'captivity bias' on parrots who make tools in laboratory settings. This is where the atypical environment, such as increased free time and time spent with other tool users, is suggested to make it more likely for individuals to make tools.

Goffin's cockatoo is no exception. Previous studies found that captive birds are able to make the same tools from a variety of materials, adapting to the properties of each medium. However, in this instance, the study's authors believe their discovery 'represents one of the most complex examples of tool use so far recorded in any species without hands.'

A Goffin's Cockatoo looks at the camera

Researchers believe the cokatoo shows 'one of the most complex examples of tool use' in species without hands. ©Lee/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Ready meals

Goffin's cockatoo is found on the Tanimbar Islands of Indonesia, with a few introduced populations in Singapore, Taiwan and Puerto Rico. There are estimated to be a few hundred thousand of them in existence, which are limited to their island homes.

Goffin's cockatoo makes a popular pet, meaning many wild birds are trapped for the wildlife trade.

Following the observations in captivity, researchers began to look for tool use within wild cockatoos. But despite two projects and almost 37 days spent observing the birds, there was no sign of it.

Researchers instead decided to capture the birds and place them in a temporary aviary in the field. They hoped to conduct controlled studies while allowing the cockatoos to act as naturally as possible.

The group of 15 birds were presented with a sea mango, a fruit native to the area which has a tough stone in the centre. One male immediately started to create tools to access the seed matter inside the stone, while another male later created tools when the group was given another fruit in a subsequent trial.

These males were then separated from the rest of the group and trialled on their own.

Researchers observed that the birds made tools which broadly fell into three different categories, which they described as fine, medium and sturdy. The fine and medium tools were made from bark, with pieces cut selectively to form the tools, while the sturdy tool was made by cutting a branch at the base and making the stump into a tool.

The fine tools were thin and sharp, and used by the cockatoos to pierce the seed coating. The study tools were then used to help wedge open the fruit's stone, allowing better access to the inside of the seed. The more rigid medium tools were then used to extract the seed matter to eat. 

A chimpanzee holds a stick

Primates had previously been the only animals known to make tool sets. ©Norma Cornes/Shutterstock

Mind over matter

The use of multiple tools to accomplish a single task suggests that Goffin's cockatoo has a higher level of cognitive reasoning than previously understood. The researchers observed that the order of the tools being used was adjusted for different sea mangoes, suggesting that the cockatoo was responding to the characteristics of each fruit given to them.

A couple of tools were also accidentally dropped before being used, but already had distinctive forms. This shows that the cockatoos were creating the tools for a specific use, rather than their shape being a result of use in the fruit.

The use of tools in this combination is known as a tool set and was previously only known to be used by primates. For instance, some chimpanzee populations use woody sticks to pierce a hole in the side of an ant nest, then use a more flexible stem to dip into the gap and harvest the protein-rich ants.

The emphasis is now on finding out more about the use of tools by Goffin's cockatoos in the wild.

While it is possible the behaviour was a result of being in the aviary, footage captured on feeding platforms suggests that wild birds do use wooden tools on sea mangoes. Researchers have found seeds under sea mango trees that appear to have been subjected to tool use.

In particular, researchers hope to find out about the prevalence of tool use across the Tanimbar islands and whether it is widespread or limited to specific populations. Understanding more about how tool use comes about, especially in non-primates, can help us discover more about how innovation works across the animal kingdom.