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The Goffin cockatoo

Goffin’s cockatoos or Tanimbar Corellas (Cacatua goffini) are endemic to an island archipelago in Indonesia. They live in social groups in tropical dry forests, roost in tree holes and feed mainly on a seed based diet on the ground as well as in the canopy. Despite being subject to heavy trapping (up to 10.000 ind./annum before international trade was banned in 1992) this species appears to have maintained a relatively large population size of ca. 300.000-400.000 birds in the wild. It is a comparatively small white cockatoo (ca. 30 cm body length) with a bishop’s hat crest. Despite its rather inconspicuous appearance, the Goffin is a common representative in modern aviculture. This is likely due to its complex play behaviour, which humans can find amusing.

Physical cognition in ‘brainy’ birds such as parrots represents a promising topic in a formerly largely ‘primato-centric’ scientific orientation. So far, technical problem solving in parrots has only been investigated in a limited number of species: only few have been systematically tested on a broad spectrum of cognitive tasks in the physical domain. Due to their elaborate object play as well as their manipulative exploration behaviour, the Goffins represent potentially revealing candidates for comparative cognition, especially in the physical domain.

The Animals

By now, a group of 15 cockatoos (7:8 sex ratio) for the purpose of a long-term study of their cognitive abilities have been socialized to Group housing at the Goffin Lab in Lower Austria.

The animals are maintained in a large group aviary with adjacent indoor housing and receive enrichment on a regular basis. The cockatoos are accustomed to a daily monitoring and experimental routine (the birds principally participate in all experiments only on voluntary basis: either the door of the testing compartment is opened and the respective bird is called by name, or the experimenter enters the group space and asks the subject to step up on his/her hand in order to carry the it into the testing room).

The group consists mainly of juvenile subjects hatched between 2010 and 2011. Four animals are young adults (hatched between 2006 and 2007).

Object play

One of our primary interests in studying in this species is its highly conspicuous, complex and structured object play behaviour.

The animals not only manipulate objects for substantial time spans, we have also observed them establishing complex object relationships similar to those created by two-three year old human toddlers: they frequently combine up to thee different objects in multiple ways and insert compact objects/toys into hollow cavities as well as into their bath water in and out of experimental contexts.

Such combinatory actions are often considered ontogenetic as well as evolutionary precursors to functional behaviour such as for example tool use. Therefore we are currently interested in whether the combined objects are chosen arbitrarily, in the motorical complexity of the object relationships established and whether visual as well as sound effects during play are reinforced. We are also interested in social aspects of object play such as shared manipulations, displays and directed attention.

Physical Cognition

Explorative Learning

The profits of high levels of persistence during haptic object manipulation are that it may become a rewarding experience (if for example the shell of a new fruit is cracked). Even if the effort does not result in an immediate reward, the animals are given the opportunity to broaden their behavioural repertoire in an opportunistic manner arming themselves with new skills for novel situations. The Goffins are curious and drawn to conspicuous object properties. Their exploration seems to be reinforced by the movability of the respective affordances and involves both, bill and feet. Breeders and pet keepers frequently report them to be ‘escape artists’, unlocking even the most complex closing mechanisms of their home cages. This makes them interesting candidate subjects for tests including so-called artificial fruit apparatuses, which are typically transparent boxes containing a food reward which can only be obtained by operating/dismantling one or more opening devices. These usually require innovative and/or motorically complex behavioural patters, which are not necessarily within the species’ usual repertoire.

We confront our subjects to several versions of artificial fruit apparatuses in order to study the effect of explorative learning on the innovative capacity of our subjects. We are also interested in whether the animals can make inferences about the physics underlying the respective object properties once they have learned to employ them.

Spatial knowledge

While searching for food or during predator avoidance, many animals need to be able to track an object’s visible or invisible spatial trajectory. Research in the theory of object permanence, the ability to represent the existence and the movements of out-of sight objects has by now been applied to numerous animals and can roughly be classified into visible as well as invisible displacement tasks. In visible displacement tasks an object moves in the subject’s plain view behind one or more screens. During the invisible displacement an object is hidden underneath a smaller occluder and is thereafter moved behind one or more bigger screens. Food can also be hidden under one of several equal small occluders. The occluders are thereafter interchanged and/or their arrangement is rotated at different angles without being lifted in between.

So far, previous studies suggest that great apes exceed in most visible as well as invisible displacement task while the performance in invisible displacement of most New world monkeys is less convincing.

Although there are far less studies on birds, results from jays, African grey parrots, kea and ravens suggest that some corvid and psittacine species can succeed in tracking invisible object displacements.

We are currently to conducting a survey of both visible and invisible displacement tasks on the Goffins in order to contribute to the existing literature.

Means-end Learning

Classical means-end tasks typically involve a final goal (end) and a second object (means), which can be employed to obtain the goal. An example of a means-end task is the physical support problem, in which the movement of the support influences that of an out-of-reach object but on the condition that the target object rests on it. The animals’ understanding of the physics underlying the task can be challenged by presenting them with a two-choice-task including a correct and an incorrect option and by changing functional and/or non-functional properties of the two supports.

Comparative Problem Solving

Comparative tasks are important instruments to unravel the evolution of many aspects of intelligent behaviour. Corvids and parrots both have a enlarged brain region that shares similarities in neurophysiology and function with the mammalian prefrontal cortex, they additionally have extended periods of parental care, typically live in large, hierarchically organized groups and have long life expectancies, which are all indicators for enhanced cognitive abilities. Furthermore, members of both families have proven skilled in cognitive tasks multiple times in the past. However, so far there is a scarcity of direct comparisons in cognitive science between the two. Therefore, some of the technical problems we are currently investigating in the cockatoos, will be tested in parallel on New Caledonian crows using the exact same setup in cooperation with Dr. Auguste von Bayern and Prof. Alex Kacelnik from the Behavioural Ecology Research Group in Oxford. New Caledonian crows are among the most proficient non-human tool users, employing and manufacturing a wide variety of different tools in the wild and have additionally shown great skill in a in innovative problem solving tasks in the laboratory. Ten of the twenty-five crows currently studied by Dr. von Bayern are approximately the same age and have similar experimental histories as most of our cockatoos.

Social Cognition

Social Interactions

Other than on technical problem solving we will, in the future, additionally focus on investigating features of social structure such as bonding, alliances and conflict management.

Delay of Gratification

Further, we are currently investigating reciprocity and lucrative decision-making using the food exchange paradigm, in which the animals can choose to trade items that are presently in their possession for other tokens depending on their respective values (different quanitaties/qualitaties).

The People

Dr. Alice Auersperg

Erwin Schrödinger Projekt No  J 3404-B19

Alice is interested in comparative cognition in particular in tool use and other aspects of physical problem solving in birds and primates. She is managing the Goffin Lab.

Contact via email: alice.auersperg@univie.ac.at

Isabelle Laumer

Isabelle made her Master in delay of gratification in the food/token exchange paradigm in the cockatoos.

Master Students

Christina Seyerl: ' technical problem solving in the Goffin's cockatoo (Cacatua goffini)'

Romana Gruber: 'Matching to sample in the Goffin's cockatoo (Cacatua goffini)'

Isabella Beinauer: 'Prospective and retrospective tool selection in the Goffin's cockatoo (Cacatua goffini)'

Cornelia Habl: 'How does experience in object play impact on tool related problem solving in the Goffin's cockatoo (Cacatua goffini)'


O‘Hara, M., Auersperg, A.M.I., Bugnyar, T. Huber, L. 2015. Inference by exclusion in Goffin cockatoos (Cacatua goffini). Plos ONE. 10(8):e0134894. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134894.

Auersperg, A.M.I, Oswald, N., Domansegg, M., Bugnyar, T. (2015) Combinatory actions during object play in parrots. Animal Behavior and Cognition 2015, 1(4): 470-488. DOI: 10.12966/abc.11.05.2014.

Auersperg, A.M.I, van Horik, J., Bugnyar, T., Kacelnik, K., Emery, N., von Bayern, A.M.P. (2015) Combinatory actions during object play in psittaciformes (Diopsittaca nobilis, Pionites melanocephala, Cacatua goffini) and corvids (Corvus corax, C. monedula, C. moneduloides). Journal of Comparative Psychology. 129(1): 62-71.

Auersperg, A.M.I, von Bayern, A.M.P., Weber, S., Szapari, A., Bugnyar, T. Kacelnik, A. (2014) Social Transmission of Tool Use in the Goffins cockatoo. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B. 281(1793), 20140972. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0972.

Auersperg, A.M.I., Kacelnik, A., von Bayern, A.M.P. (2013) Explorative learning and functional inferences on a five-step mechanical problem in juvenile Goffin’s cockatoos (Cacatua goffini). Plos ONE. 8(7): e68979. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068979.

Auersperg, A.M.I., Szabo, B., Bugnyar, T.A (2013) Object permanence in the Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffini). Journal of Comparative Psychology. Published Online. DOI:10.1037/a0033272.

Auersperg, A.M.I., Laumer, I., Bugnyar, T. (2013) Goffin cockatoos wait for qualitative and quantitative gains but prefer 'better' to 'more'. Biology Letters 9(3):20121092. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.1092.

Auersperg, A.M.I., Szabo, B. von Bayern, A.M.P., Kacelnik, A. (2012) Spontaneous innovation of tool manufacture and use in a Goffin’s cockatoo. Current Biology. 22(21): 903 - R904. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.002

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