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Smart Birds: Cockatoos Solve a Complex Five-Step Puzzle

Goffin's Cockatoo in flight

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Marah09013

Think you have a smart parrot? That may be, but a Goffin’s Cockatoo has recently set a new standard by which bird – and indeed animal – intelligence will be measured. Pipin, as the avian genius is known, demonstrated a skill previously known to exist only in chimpanzees. Using sequential problem solving abilities, Pipin (and, after a time, several of his “lab partners”) figured out how to open 5 different locks – each of which jammed the next lock, and each requiring a different physical maneuver – in order to obtain a treat. Mastering the task, which took nearly 2 hours, required the bird to solve problems, remember what he learned and apply it to a different task, and focus on a distant reward…and, I assume, to have patience!


The Experiment

The fascinating research into Psittacine intelligence was conducted at the University of Vienna, and published in the journal PLoS ONE (8(7): e68979;doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.oo68979; 7/13). Ten Goffin’s Cockatoos were presented with a box containing a treat. The door to the box was transparent, so that the birds could see the treat (a nut) within, and was secured by 5 locks.


Lock number 1 had to be opened before the cockatoos could get to lock number 2, which had to be opened in order to gain access to lock number 3, and so on. Opening each lock required a different physical action – removing a pin, screw and bolt, turning a wheel and shifting a latch.


Without prior training, Pipin opened the box in less than 2 hours. The article stressed the speed of his problem solving, which of course is impressive. But I’m equally surprised by the fact that he could keep at a problem for such a long time. As anyone who has tried to train parrots (or toddlers!) knows, their attention spans are relatively short (or so I thought…maybe birds and 2-year-old children have been tricking me all along!).


Five other “less-cerebrally-gifted” but still quite intelligent Goffin’s Cockatoos solved the puzzle after watching Pipin perform or following exposure to each lock individually.


Juvenile Goffin's Cockatoo

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Snowmanradio

Researchers Make the Test More Difficult


Sequential problem solving requires a parrot or person to remember and then apply what has been learned, and to work for a distant reward. In order to test these and related abilities, the University of Vienna researchers scrambled the locks, so that number 3 was first in line, followed by number 5, etc. Once a cockatoo had mastered a lock, it rarely became confused if the lock’s place in the puzzle was changed. And locks that were disabled by the researchers (left unlocked) were given a quick glance and then ignored.


How Bright is Your Parrot?

I’ve spent a lifetime working with parrots and other animals, yet never fail to be amazed by stories of learning abilities relayed to me by readers and zoo visitors. Please be sure to post your own “smart bird” tales below!




Further Reading

Kea Intelligence Shocks Researchers http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatbirdblog/2011/06/24/kea-parrot-intelligence-shocks-researchers/#.U7AokrEnUpo

African Gray Parrot Wins Talking Contest and Lands Movie Role http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatbirdblog/2011/02/22/african-grey-parrot-wins-international-talking-contest%E2%80%A6and-a-movie-role/#.U7Ao3LEnUpo

Sequential Problem Solving in Goffin’s Cockatoos (Original Article) http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0068979

The Best Way to Prevent Feather-Plucking – Make Your Parrot Work!

An exciting new study has revealed that healthy parrots prefer working for their food to eating from a bowl.  Parrots involved in feather-plucking, however, go right to their bowls and show no interest in solving problems that led to food rewards.  I think this research is important to all who share their homes with parrots.  Some progress was also made in developing a medication for birds that have begun to damage their plumage.  I have dealt with feather-plucking even in well-run zoos; it’s a sad and frustrating condition, and I hope that this new work points the way to some solutions.

Sun Conure playing

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Melanie Phung

Busy Minds and Bodies Remain Healthy

Feather plucking is heartbreaking to see, and immensely frustrating to cure.  Despite much interest from the parrot-keeping community, foolproof solutions elude us.  Feather-plucking and other forms of self-mutilation ruin the lives of countless pet parrots, many of which are eventually turned over to rescue centers, euthanized, or released.

A researcher at the Utrecht University Clinic for Companion Animals in the Netherlands offered African Gray Parrots the option of eating from a bowl or removing food from a pipe lined with holes.  Healthy birds invariably ignored the food bowls and went right to work on the pipes. Read More »

Choosing the Best Cage for Canaries, Finches and other Small Birds

While working as a bird keeper at the Bronx Zoo, I cared for a number of finches that are commonly kept as pets.  Early on, I was struck by the amazing differences in the behavior of the same species when kept in large exhibits as opposed to small cages.  Along with increased activity and interesting behaviors came good health and excellent breeding results.  While few pet owners can keep their birds in zoo-exhibit sized cages, many do not give enough thought to just how much space their finches and canaries need.  Perhaps because these birds “get by” in small cages, and rarely exhibit the problems that afflict space-deprived parrots, they are often denied spacious living quarters.  But, because of their physical make-up and lifestyle, finches are poorly suited for life in cramped quarters…even less so, in some ways, than are many parrots. Choosing the best cage for these small birds is essential for their well-being and it allows you to enjoy more natural behaviors.

Painted Firetail

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jim Bendon

Finch and Canary Lifestyles

It’s important to bear in mind that canaries and other finches do not climb about on perches and cage bars as do parrots.  Flight space is a critical point in cage selection.  Also, finches are only rarely let out of their cages for exercise and interaction with owners.  The vast majority spend their lives in a cage…in many cases able to only hop a few inches from perch to perch, day in and day out. Read More »

Parakeets, Cockatiels, Parrots and Cockatoos – Feather Plucking

Feather plucking (and other forms of self-mutation) is one of the most common concerns raised by parrot owners.  I’ve encountered the problem among zoo birds as well.  Despite being well-studied, feather plucking remains difficult to both prevent and cure.  Our understanding is complicated by the fact that feather plucking can be caused by widely-differing physical or emotional ailments.  But some general rules and patterns have emerged.  I’ll review these below…please be sure to post your own observations, as we still have much to learn.

Golden Conures

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Benny Mazur

Different yet Related Causes

Feather-plucking may be a reaction to a physical or emotional problem.  Sometimes, the reason is clearly physical…as when a bird plagued by mites picks at its feathers and skin.  Or the reason may be purely environmental…as when a bored parrot kept in a tiny cage adopts self-destructive behaviors.

But there are many areas of overlap.  In the example above, when the mites are eliminated, the bird will usually cease feather-picking. However, just like human infants, parrots quickly learn how to get our attention.  Let’s suppose the bird in question is housed alone and with minimal human contact.  It may very well make an association between feather plucking and attention – when it pulled at its feathers, people came; in some cases, solitary birds may even seek negative attention (i.e. yelling) if none other is provided. Read More »

Penguin Facts – African Penguins in Captivity and the Wild

Penguins are beloved by bird enthusiasts and “regular” people alike.  While they are not typically thought of as “pets”, in the course of my zoo career I have run into several people who have managed to keep penguins in their personal collections.  One such instance involved a well-known entertainer who donated his flock of flamingoes – which he housed in a climate-controlled building in the desert just outside Las Vegas – to the Bronx Zoo in order to make room for penguins!  I’ve had the good fortune to work with several species in zoos and today would like to cover the care and natural history of a great favorite, the African Penguin, aka the Black-Footed or Jackass Penguin, Spheniscus demersus.

African Penguins

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jurriaan Schulman

Captive Care

Penguins are demanding captives…I found this to be true even though I had the Bronx Zoo’s resources, and the expertise of experienced co-workers, at my disposal.  Most species lack defenses to local fungi, bacteria and parasites …in NYC, West Nile proved to be especially dangerous.  The range of preventative medications and vitamin supplements they require necessitated that I hand feed each daily – an enjoyable but tedious task.  They learn to “line up” for food right away, but squabble continually…and the numerous wing tags attached to each bird complicated individual identification (the opposite of a wing tag’s intended purpose!). Read More »

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