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Smart parrots solve five-step puzzle to unlock treat

July 3, 2013
Courtesy of University of Oxford
and World Science staff

A spe­cies of In­do­ne­sian par­rot can solve com­plex prob­lems that in­volve un­do­ing a se­ries of dif­fer­ent lock­s—re­veal­ing new depths to phys­i­cal in­tel­li­gence in birds, sci­en­tists re­port.

A cock­a­too solves the bolt-type lock on a puz­zle box. The re­quired steps are: 1. Grab the pin at the top ring and pull up; 2. Un­screw the screw with 25-30 con­sec­u­tive up and down move­ments with beak or claw; 3. In­sert the beak un­der­neath the low­er and of the bolt and push it through the fix­a­tion ring; 4. Twist the wheel 90° and there­af­ter pull it to­wards your own body through the T-ba­r us­ing the beak or the claw; 5. push the ba­r through its fix­a­tion. (Cred­it: Al­ice Auer­s­perg)


Re­search­ers put un­trained Gof­fin’s cock­a­toos in front of a box con­tain­ing a nut be­hind a trans­par­ent door. To get the treat, the birds had to un­block a se­ries of five dif­fer­ent in­ter­lock­ing de­vices, each jam­ming the next. They would have to re­move a pin, then a screw, then a bolt, then turn a wheel 90 de­grees, and then shift a latch side­ways.

Out of 10 par­rots, one, called Pipin, cracked the prob­lem un­aided in un­der two hours, the sci­en­tists re­ported. Sev­er­al oth­ers did it af­ter be­ing helped ei­ther by be­ing pre­sented with the se­ries of locks sep­a­rately or be­ing al­lowed to watch a skilled part­ner do­ing it.

The study re­veals that the birds “can learn to prog­ress to­wards a dis­tant goal with­out be­ing re­warded step-by-step,” said Al­ex Kacel­nik of Ox­ford Uni­vers­ity, a co-author of the stu­dy, pub­lished July 3 in the on­line jour­nal PLoS One.

“We can­not prove that the birds un­der­stand the phys­i­cal struc­ture of the prob­lem as an adult hu­man would, but we can in­fer… that they are sen­si­tive to how ob­jects act on each oth­er,” he added.

Solving one prob
­lem in order to gain access to another, or se­quen­tial prob­lem solving, is considered cog­nitive­ly highly chal­leng­ing as it re­quires spat­ially and men­tal­ly dis­tanc­ing one­self from a goal.

Goffin's Cockatoos at play.


Once the birds learn­ed how to solve one lock they rarely had trou­ble with the same de­vice again, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. 

Af­ter the par­rots mas­tered the whole se­quence the sci­en­tists probed wheth­er they had simply learnt how to re­peat a se­quence of ac­tions, or in­stead re­sponded to each lock in­di­vid­u­ally. 

For this step, some locks were re-ordered, re­moved or dis­abled.

“S­tatis­ti­cal anal­y­sis showed that they re­acted to the changes with im­me­di­ate sen­si­ti­vity to the nov­el situa­t­ion,” said Al­ice Auersperg, who led the study at the Gof­fin Lab­o­r­a­to­ry at Vi­en­na Uni­vers­ity. 

Their “sud­den and of­ten er­ror­less im­prove­ment and re­sponse to changes in­di­cates pro­nounced be­hav­ior­al plas­ti­city [flex­i­bil­ity] and prac­ti­cal mem­o­ry,” added Au­guste von Bay­ern, an­oth­er co-author from Ox­ford.

“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.”

“It would be too easy to say that the cock­a­toos un­der­stand the prob­lem, but this claim will only be jus­ti­fied when we can re­pro­duce the de­tails of the an­i­mals’ re­sponse to a large bat­tery of nov­el phys­i­cal prob­lems,” Kacel­nik said.


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A species of Indonesian parrot can solve complex problems that involve undoing a series of different locks—revealing new depths to physical intelligence in birds, scientists report. Researchers put untrained Goffin’s cockatoos in front of a box containing a nut behind a transparent door. To get the treat, the birds had to unblock a series of five different interlocking devices, each jamming the next. They would have to remove a pin, then a screw, then a bolt, then turn a wheel 90 degrees, and then shift a latch sideways. Out of 10 parrots, one, called Pipin, cracked the problem unaided in under two hours, the scientists reported. Several others did it after being helped either by being presented with the series of locks separately or being allowed to watch a skilled partner doing it. The study reveals that the birds “can learn to progress towards a distant goal without being rewarded step-by-step,” said Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University, a co-author of the study, published July 3 in the online journal PLoS One. “We cannot prove that the birds understand the physical structure of the problem as an adult human would, but we can infer… that they are sensitive to how objects act on each other,” he added. Once the birds learned how to solve one lock they rarely had trouble with the same device again, the investigators said. After the parrots mastered the whole sequence the scientists probed whether they had simply learnt how to repeat a sequence of actions, or instead responded to each lock individually. To do this, 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,” said Alice Auersperg, who led the study at the Goffin Laboratory at Vienna University. Their “sudden and often errorless improvement and response to changes indicates pronounced behavioral plasticity [flexibility] and practical memory,” added Auguste von Bayern, another co-author from Oxford. “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.” “It would be too easy to say that the cockatoos understand the problem, but this claim will only be justified when we can reproduce the details of the animals’ response to a large battery of novel physical problems,” Kacelnik said.