Cockatoos Smart Enough to Undo Complicated Locks

A new study finds that the birds have flexible problem-solving skills.

ByABC News
July 5, 2013, 1:43 PM

July 5, 2013— -- Getting called a birdbrain might not be such an insult after all. A new study published in the journal PLoS One finds that cockatoos, members of the parrot family, can figure out how to break through several complicated locks to get to a treat.

Alex Kacelnik, a professor of zoology at Oxford University and author of the study, said that the birds themselves were very playful and inquisitive. "They're particularly keen on exploring new things," he told ABC News.

Kacelnik and his colleagues, Alice Auersperg and Auguste von Bayern at the University of Vienna, placed a cashew nut behind a window fastened shut by a thin metal bar. The birds had to get through four additional locks that required them to pull a pin, turn a screw, remove a bolt, and rotate a wheel to reach the reward. More importantly, they had to do those actions in the correct order.

If a cockatoo completed the first task, the scientists then rearranged the order of the four locks. They wanted to see whether the birds could modify their lock-picking behavior by doing the same four actions but in a different sequence.

They were surprised at the cockatoos' flexible problem-solving skills. Regardless of the order of the locks, the birds worked through them one by one to get to the prized nut. "They're sensitive to how the problem is organized," he said. "They do whatever they have to do in the new circumstances."

Irene Pepperberg, former owner of Alex, the famously intelligent African grey parrot and an adjunct associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University, said that cockatoos were the orangutans of the parrot world. "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."

In addition, she said that this research says something bigger about the intelligence of birds. "They understand how each of these independent steps relates to the end goal," she said. "It's an amazing ability to have this representation."