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Wild Cockatoos Are Just as Smart as Lab-Raised Ones

When it comes to cognitive testing, the Goffin’s cockatoos at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna are pros.

Researchers have tested them on toolmaking, shape-matching and other tasks, and found that a cockatoo can learn how to solve a problem from watching another cockatoo do it just once.

Now, researchers in Alice M. I. Auersperg’s lab, the home of the Austrian cockatoo colony, have created an experimental setup they call an “innovation arena.” It’s a new way to test the ability of animals to innovate, and might be used for a variety of species, in principle. And they compared the performance of laboratory-raised cockatoos and wild-caught birds, to see if the lab-raised birds had acquired an edge by hanging out with human beings.

It might seem like pure human arrogance to think that we make animals smarter, but previous research efforts have found a “captivity effect” in animals, including chimpanzees, that have been in long-term human custody. Their cognitive performance was better than that of their wild relatives on human-devised tests. Therefore, the humans hypothesized, exposure to human environments and interaction with humans might improve animals’ ability to innovate.

The hypothesis did not hold up in this experiment. As the researchers reported Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports, the wild birds were just as smart as the captive birds — but a good deal less interested in bothering with the experiment at all.

Perhaps the birds did not appreciate that the “innovation arena” was like the set of an avian TV game show: a semicircular area with 20 doors, each with a different task behind it to solve for a food reward. It certainly looks like fun from a human point of view. And perhaps birds that have spent a lot of time around humans and their experiments get the idea that a weird-looking apparatus indicates that humans are going to offer food for otherwise nonsensical tasks like moving a lever or pushing a button.

Among the 20 tasks revealed by the doors were ones the researchers called the seesaw, the swish, the shovel, the swing, the mill and the twig. Each task required a different solution to earn the treat. The bird might have to push a platform down or a lever sideways. Or it might have to press a knob, nudge a bowl, rotate a wheel or bend a wire. Each time the birds were set in the arena, the tasks were shuffled, hidden behind different doors.

Innovation in animals is defined in different ways, but it more or less means coming up with new ways to solve problems. The researchers wanted to test the rate of innovation: how many solutions a bird could come up with in a given amount of time. And they wanted an experimental setup that, in principle, might be adapted to different species. Thus, the arena.

The experiment was designed both to show that the arena was workable and to test the captivity effect. The researchers set up a kind of competition between the major-league, lab-raised team in Vienna and a pickup squad of temporarily captive cockatoos. (The latter had been caught in the wild in Indonesia and kept long enough that they were comfortable around people and the experimental apparatus.)

The A-team performed in Vienna; the scrubs were in a field station lab in Indonesia. The competitions were often run more or less simultaneously, according to Theresa Rössler, who conducted the experiments in Vienna while Berenika Mioduszewska ran them in Indonesia.

As anticipated, the apparatus worked out. The Vienna birds, familiar with experiments and their rewards, dove right in when placed at the starting point. “They very quickly approach the tasks and wander around and try to open the boxes and get out the rewards,” Ms. Rössler said.

But they didn’t always follow the game plan — no surprise to a cockatoo researcher. Sometimes the birds, both lab-raised and wild, had their own idea of how a problem might be solved. For instance, some “opened the Wire task in several instances by removing the window hinges (which were closer to the reward) instead of unbending the wire,” the researchers wrote. Ms. Rössler said, “In many of the experiments they seemed to outsmart us at some point.”

The big difference between the two groups was in their interest in doing the tests at all. The researchers classified 10 of 11 lab birds as motivated, meaning they began right away to open doors and look for food. Only three of the eight wild birds were motivated.

The unmotivated birds “rarely approached the setup or interacted with the tasks,” the researchers reported. But the motivated birds — both wild-caught and lab-raised — performed at the same level in solving the tasks.

Ms. Rössler said that if the wild birds “decide they want to interact with the apparatus, they are just as skillful problem solvers.”

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