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Cockatoos Ace Carnival Game

Cockatoos' object-tracking skills are on par with human 4-year-olds. Continue reading →

Cockatoos have just aced a challenging hidden-object game that's similar to carnival tricksters hiding an object under one of several nut shells, and then moving the shells around. In order to win, the player has to select the shell hiding the object. Cockatoos, according to the new study, are successful at finding objects long after they can see or smell them.

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The birds do this on par with human 4 year olds, concludes the Journal of Comparative Psychology study. It looks to me like the birds could take on adults too. See what you think, after watching this video.

The discovery sheds light on how birds - and humans - track the trajectory of objects, the skill that lets us know that tasty snacks are still in a drawer long after they've been placed out of sight there. This skill also tells us when and where a car driven into a tunnel will reappear. Children can usually do this after the age of 3.

Birgit Szabo of the University of Vienna and colleagues tested eight Goffin cockatoos, a species that's known to be very inquisitive and playful. It's no wonder that the birds are popular as pets, given their inherent intelligence and zest for living. YouTube is full of videos showing the birds singing popular songs and carrying on in other ways.

As you can see in the video, Szabo and her team put a treat under a magnetized cover. This allowed the researchers to move the object from underneath the table.

The researchers moved the object behind and underneath three boxes. In one of the more seemingly difficult experiments, they placed three cups on a board in the middle of the table. The treat was under one of the cups. The researchers then, from under the table, spun all three cups around. When the cups stopped rotating, the birds had to figure out where the treat was.

In another version of the experiment, a man held one of the birds and walked it around the table in a circle. This attempt to disorient the cockatoo failed. The bird simply jumped off the guy and quickly found the treat.

Even adult humans fail miserably trying to play these types of games, which is probably why magicians and others still bring the birds along to fairs, birthday parties and other events.

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So, why would the birds have evolved such tracking skills in the first place?

Co-author Auguste von Bayern from the University of Oxford addressed this, explaining that "the ability to fly and prey upon or being preyed upon from the air" likely requires keen visual-spatial skills that could lead to the birds' game playing savvy.

The game of "now you see me, now you don't" can be life-or-death in the wild, with the birds having to make educated guesses about where fast-moving predators are, or if they're visible to predators, even if they've attempted to hide.

Non-human apes have the ability too, which also probably evolved to better handle predator-prey interactions. Co-author Thomas Bugnayer, from the University of Vienna, pointed out that these abilities "pose a large cognitive load on working memory." It takes a lot of brain power to handle these tasks.

Bugnayer hopes that future studies will help to better clarify how the skills evolved, why they persist, and how they benefit humans and other animals.

Image: Alice Auersperg