From news writer Denyse O’Leary:
Here’s a new one for animal intelligence, from New Scientist:
Five birds were successful after some guidance, or with practice, but one of the cockatoos – called Pipin – broke in unassisted in under 2 hours. It was also the only bird to remove the screw with its foot instead of its beak.
To test whether the birds had simply memorised a sequence of tasks, or whether they had a physical understanding of each device, the team altered the set-up by breaking, removing or re-ordering some of the locks, as shown in the video.
This did not stump the birds, suggesting that they are aware of how objects act on each other, says Kacelnik. It also shows that the parrots do not need to be rewarded every step of the way to solve a problem.
This is significant, particularly because birds’ brains are not even organized the same way as mammalian brains. So clearly, intelligence (seen as problem-solving ability) does not depend on brain organization.
With birds, as with molluscs, some are smart in a sense that humans can understand (like that cockatoo) and some seem to have a brain only because it is part of the package. We really do not yet know what the drivers and related conditions are for why one life form will become quite intelligent and a related life form will not. That is worthy of serious study.
A significant fact about the lock-breaking cockatoos is that they understand the relationship between their actions and an outcome several steps down the road.
A group of us were once installing a cat door in a basement door, to keep cats off the main floor when meals were being prepared (but not otherwise). One enterprising cat, who was sticking his paws under the door, suddenly drove his paw through the plastic window of the locked cat door and accidentally released the catch. At first, we thought our efforts had failed. Then we realized, no. He didn’t realize what exactly he had done. Therefore, he is unlikely to do it again, except by accident. And he probably still won’t realize what he has done even then.
This turned out to be true. He never did “get” the way in which he had released the catch. So he never tried it again.
The cockatoo experiment design rules out such factors as these – the bird trying anything and everything and just getting lucky without learning a correct routine. Thus it provides a useful way of assessing problem-solving intelligence.
Hee’s an unrelated vid of a cockatoo opening a lock on a cage door from the inside:
See also: More insights into how smart birds solve problems
There is no tree of intelligence
Are vertebrates really smarter than invertebrates?