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Who’s a clever boy, then? Gof­fin’s cock­a­toos, a species of small par­rot na­tive to Aus­trala­sia, have been shown to have sim­i­lar shape-recog­ni­tion abil­i­ties to a hu­man two-year-old.

Though not known to use tools in wild, the birds have proved adept at tool use in captivity. In a re­cent ex­per­i­ment at the Univer­sity of Vienna and the Univer­sity of Vet­eri­nary Medicine Vienna, cock­a­toos were pre­sented with box with a nut in­side it. The clear front of the box had a ‘key­hole’ in a geo­met­ric shape, and the birds were given five dif­fer­ently shaped ‘keys’ to choose from. Insert­ing the cor­rect ‘key’ would re­lease the nut.

In hu­mans, ba­bies can put a round shape in a round hole from around one year of age, but it will be an­other year be­fore they’re able to do the same with less sym­met­ri­cal shapes such as squares, tri­an­gles or crosses. This abil­ity to recog­nise that a shape will need to be ro­tated into a spe­cific ori­en­ta­tion be­fore it will fit is called an ‘al­lo­cen­tric frame of ref­er­ence’. In the tests in Vienna, the Gof­fin’s cock­a­toos were able to se­lect the right tool for the job, in most cases, by vis­ual recog­ni­tion alone. Where trial-and-er­ror was in­volved, the cock­a­toos fared bet­ter than apes and mon­keys have in sim­i­lar tests.

“This in­di­cates that [Gof­fin’s cock­a­toos] do in­deed pos­sess an al­lo­cen­tric frame of ref­er­ence when mov­ing ob­jects in space, sim­i­lar to twoyear-old tod­dlers,” said Alice Auersperg, head of the Gof­fin lab at the Univer­sity of Vet­eri­nary Medicine Vienna.

The next step, say the re­searchers, is to try and work out whether the cock­a­toos rely en­tirely on vis­ual clues, or also use a sense of touch in mak­ing their shape se­lec­tions.

Above: Gof­fin’s cock­a­tooshave shape-recog­ni­tion abil­i­ties akin to those of ahu­man two-year-old

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