Golfers aren't so special - even cockatoos can play the game

February 27, 2022

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Golfers aren't so special - even cockatoos can play the game

Cockatoos have shown an extraordinary ability to complete a task by combining simple tools, demonstrating that this cognitive ability is not found only in primates (like us).

The research, published in Scientific Reports, is part of a wider international and interdisciplinary project comparing children’s innovation and problem-solving skills with those of cockatoos. My money’s on the birds.

Tool use is somewhat rare in animals, and particularly uncommon is the use of compound tools where two elements are fixed together, such as a spear, or an axe, or composite tools, where two items – for example a stick and a rock – are used together. These types of tools have evolved into recreational activities, such as hockey, cricket or golf, and it was this that inspired the study design.

In their experiment, the team devised a game of golf for one species of bird, the Goffin’s cockatoo, which is known for its problem-solving skills and its ability to use single tools such as sticks to open up nut and seed shells. And, presumably for their desire to win a PGA tournament.

The birds had to manipulate a ball through a hole into a closed box, and then use a stick to push the ball to one side of the box where it triggers a trapdoor mechanism. This in turn releases a cashew nut for the bird—rather like a prize for a hole-in-one.

The cockatoos figured out how to use the stick to maneuver the ball into the right position to release the treat – showing a high level of tool innovation.

What the researchers say: “An amazing aspect of the process was to observe how these animals each invented their own individual technique in how to grip the stick and hit the ball, sometimes with astonishing dexterity,” said the lead author. “One of the birds operated the stick while holding it between the mandibles, one between the beak tip and tongue and one with his claw, similar to a primate.” Or a golf pro.

Commented the study’s co-author: “Although children are very good at using tools and technology in their lives (think spoons and iPads!), our research has shown that young children often find it hard to invent novel solutions to problems involving tool use. In fact, children under 8 can really struggle to solve problems that cockatoos can master.” I win, the birds are smarter.

“So,” she continued, “while this study is the first to show that cockatoos can coordinate tools to solve a problem, it also feeds into our ongoing work with children. Tempting as it might be – it’s not simply a question of who is the cleverest: children or cockatoos – instead comparing such different species helps us understand how humans and some other species develop impressive technological skills.”

So, what? Pity we ever became better at tool use than the birds. Just think of it: no wars, no AI, no job loss, no overpopulation, no inequality, no human genetic engineering, no fast food, no Twitter, no Facebook. Cockatoos are as smart as our children and have none of these problems. And they can live into their 90s!

And golf? Well now we know—it’s strictly for the birds!

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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