What if the world’s greatest unsolved heists were made by aviary burglars? Bear with me for a second. A bird is small enough to fit through cages and window cracks, it can fly in and out fast and on the sly, and if it ever gets caught, it won’t turn its partners in crime since … well, it can’t speak. Yeah, sure, as if a bird would ever be able to pick a lock. Wrong!

Researchers at University of Vienna in Austria, along with colleagues at University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute in Germany, studied ten Goffin’s cockatoos while they were instructed to make their way through a series of locks to reach a delicious nutty treat. The cashew nut treat was put inside a box, which in order to open it the birds had to remove five different interlocking devices. Namely, the cackatoos to had to remove a pin, followed by a screw, a bolt, then turn a wheel and move a latch sideways. It goes without saying that they made it.

Lock “pecking”

One of the Goffin’s cockatoos, called “Pipin”, solved the complex mechanical puzzle unassisted within two hours. Most other birds also managed to pick the locks, however only when they mastered the puzzle after seeing their peers perform or after being presented incrementally with the solution for each lock by a human.

“The progress of the birds towards the solution is unaffected by the fact that the goal is very distant,” said Professor Alex Kacelnik from the University of Oxford’s department of zoology, who co-authored the study.

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

A cackatoo seen twisting himself in order to solve a bolt-type lock in the five step puzzle. (c) Alice Auersperg.

A cackatoo seen twisting himself in order to solve a bolt-type lock in the five step puzzle. (c) Alice Auersperg.

Throughout the article, the authors stress that these evidences do not necessarily infer that the cackatoos are super-smart. In all good faith, it’s still not clear that cackatoos understand the problem at hand, something that should be settled in the future by tasking the birds with other novel, maybe more difficult, problems.

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Still, the study definitely shows cackatoos are crafty, the University of Vienna researchers have a long history with this particular species (Cacatua goffini ) – an Indonesian parrot which are known for their sociability and playful, exploratory behaviour. For instance, another cackatoo called “Figaro” shocked everyone after he was able to learn how to use a tool to reach a nut outside his cage – the bird this on numerous occasions, crafting his own tools out of twigs. The most interesting insight into the cackatoo’s highly interesting cognitive ability, however, came a few months ago. Back then, the same Austrian researchers found cackatoos were capable of self-control, restraining themselves from immediately eating food put at their disposal, despite being highly tempted to do so.  The ability to foresee a distant reward in time is considered to be a hallmark of intelligence. The farther a being can foresee the consequences of his actions, the more intelligent it is considered.

Back to the present study at hand, though, since there are still some thing well worth mentioning. One could say that the cackatoos picked the locks by sort of mimicking other actions or by blind luck, why not. Well, the researchers mixing up the lock sequence by re-ordering the devices or removing some altogether. Researchers found that the birds responded to the “modified” puzzle by working on the new first step to unlock the box, rather than applying the technique they had learned before.

“That tells us they are capable of innovating new sequences without any further trial,” said Prof Kacelnik, explaining what the cockatoos’ actions reveal about their intelligence.

“They are not simply repeating what has been rewarded before, but they are creating new series of actions… without any practice.”

The findings appeared in the journal PLoS One.