When it comes to handing out first prize for the best problem solvers of the animal kingdom, Goffin’s cockatoos would surely be in the running. Researchers have previously observed them taking on complex puzzles, picking locks, and even fashioning their own tools.


Now, it appears we can add another skill to that list: playing golf.

Okay, so a cockatoo is unlikely to give Tiger Woods a run for his money, but a team made up of researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, the University of Birmingham, and the University of Vienna have observed the birds using their problem-solving skills to play a mini-golf-like game in order to retrieve a tasty reward.

The team set up a game in which the birds had to pop a tiny ball through a hole in a closed box and then use a stick to poke the ball to one side of the box to trigger a trapdoor mechanism and release a cashew nut.

Three of the eleven birds tested were able to successfully complete the task, with each having their own unique approach.

“One of the most amazing aspects of the process was to observe how these animals each invented their own individual technique in how to grip the stick and hit the ball, sometimes with astonishing dexterity,” said lead researcher Dr Antonio Osuna-Mascaró, from the University of Veterinary Medicine, in Vienna.

“One of the birds operated the stick while holding it between the mandibles, one between the beak tip and tongue and one with his claw, similar to a primate.”

The use of tools made up of two parts – such as a stick and a rock – is rare amongst animals, and prior to the study had only been observed in primates.

The researchers believe that the use of two-part tools amongst early humans eventually led to the development of sports and games such as hockey, cricket and golf – this inspired them to design a similar task to test cockatoos.

The study was carried out as part of a larger project that aims to compare the problem-solving skills of cockatoos to those of human children.

“Although children are very good at using tools and technology in their lives (think spoons and iPads!), our research has shown that young children often find it hard to invent novel solutions to problems involving tool use," said co-author Sarah Beck, professor of cognitive development in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham.

"In fact, children under eight can really struggle to solve problems that cockatoos can master.

“Tempting as it might be – it’s not simply a question of who is the cleverest: children or cockatoos – instead comparing such different species helps us understand how humans and some other species develop impressive technological skills.”

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.