September 5, 2017
In the early 2000s the New Caledonian crow Betty in Oxford shocked the world when she spontaneously bent a hook into a straight piece of wire while trying to retrieve a small out-off-reach basket with a handle from a vertical tube. Interestingly, when human children were tested on a similar task setup they showed great difficulties with coming up with a suitable solution until the age of nearly eight years. New Caledonian crows are specialized tools users in the wild and their ability to handle tools is innate. Nevertheless, in this case Betty seemed to innovatively produce a novel behavioural sequence on an unknown material.
At the time, studying cognition in birds was still a young area of research and thus her hook bending abilities became a textbook example of intelligent tool manufacture in animals. By now brain and behavioural research has shown that some birds such as corvids and parrots seem to possess complex cognition at similar levels as higher primates and show similar neuron counts in the respective brain regions. Nevertheless, the studies on Betty the crow recently came under scrutiny when field researchers from the University of St Andrews found that wild New Caledonian crows used strikingly similar bending techniques to add curvature to the tool shafts of twig tools in the wild. They therefore suggested that Betty's solution was hardly innovative but could be strongly influenced by predispositions from habitual tool use and nest building.
Researchers from the University of Vienna and the Veterinary University Vienna now tested another bird species the Goffin's cockatoo on the same task setup.