For the Birds Radio Program: Cockatoo Intelligence

Original Air Date: Sept. 23, 2003 Rerun Dates: Aug. 31, 2004; Feb. 18, 2004

One of Laura’s friends on BirdChat recounts the story of a cockatoo using a tool as a weapon.

Audio missing


Cockatoo Intelligence

A few weeks ago, an Australian birder named Reg Clark posted an interesting story about a Sulfur-crested Cockatoo on the Internet list serve Bird Chat. In Australia, these cockatoos are naturally-occurring wild birds Reg has a flock of fourteen Sulphur-crested Cockatoos roosting communally in tall Eucalyptis trees about a kilometer from his home. Cockatoos are not small birds—they have a three-foot wingspan. One pair visits his home often, investigating a large hollow in tree trunk which they appear to be grooming as a suitable future nest site.

Reg wrote, “It was a sparkling Spring morning but little did I know that I was shortly to be privileged to witness a giant step up the ladder of avian evolution which in human terms is comparable to the use of fire or the wheel. In this instance it was not the use of simple natural objects as tools, no, it was the use of a sophisticated, manufactured device, used as a weapon of attack, with devastating effect.

As I stood at the large window in our bedroom taking in the beautiful morning, a large Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo swept in past the window to land with a raucous squawk and much fanning of it’s bright yellow crest, on the pathway around the edge of the swimming pool below. This bird and its mate share a secret with my wife and myself, namely, that the blue china bowl on the pool walkway, its wooden lid held in place by a small rock, contains a handful of sunflower seed.

The bird then went through the appropriate procedures to get its reward. One of these involved removing the lid and depositing it on the path about a metre away. Whilst this was being done, an intruder in the form of a Pied Currawong, a bird three-quarters the size of a raven, skulking in the tree above, spotted the newly-exposed bounty, flew down and commenced eating from the bowl. The Sulphur Crested hurriedly returned and confronted the interloper who attempted to defend his prize. He was finally forced to give way in the face of the cockatoo’s crushing beak and terrible language.

During the tussle some of the seed was spilt onto the ground, which at this point was about a metre below the walkway. The cockatoo returned to the bowl and commenced feeding. Presently it raised its head and appeared to be listening. It apparently realized that instead of flying off, the Currawong had jumped to the ground and was industriously pecking at the spilled grain. The Sulphur-Crested turned it’s head from side to side in that characteristic manner they have and waddled off down the walkway to a pink plastic bannister brush about thirty cms.long . This brush is used to sweep up any extraneous bits left by messy feeders. The bird tugged tentatively the handle then took a more satisfactory grip at about the point of balance. Turning around, it made the return journey of about four metres carrying this avian atomic bomb in its beak. In a very purposeful manner it waddled over to the edge of the walkway, shuffled sideways until it was precisely over the hapless Currawong feeding below. The cockie, refining its aim, then stretched forward and released the pink plastic bannister brush , scoring a direct hit on the unsuspecting bird beneath.”

When I read Reg’s story on Bird Chat, I couldn’t help but think of the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when they made the sudden leap to using a bone as a weapon. Sure enough, Reg concludes, The currawong, more shocked than hurt by the unexpected attack and the hi-tech nature of the weapon used – flew off shrieking, whilst the innovative Sulphur-Crested returned to it’s bowl triumphant, raising and lowering it’s crest and making grumbling noises which probably translated to ” Tomorrow the Stars.”