Good with tools? You may be a cockatoo

We humans pride ourselves on our superior smarts, given our ability to make fire, use tools and subscribe to Netflix. But if other animals could counter that presumption, they might say they’re doing just fine, thank you.

The latest entrant in the animal smarts sweepstakes is the Goffin’s cockatoo. Birds in a laboratory in Vienna deployed both a pointy stick and a straw to extract a cashew from a clear box. They used the stick to poke a hole in a paper barrier erected by the scientists, then the straw to knock the cashew free. When scientists removed the paper barrier, some birds left the pointy stick home, staff writer Erin Garcia de Jesús reports. Why tote around more tools than you need?

Wild cockatoos in Indonesia wield three different sticks to break open fruit pits. Other animals, including crows, also use tools but don’t use multiple objects as a toolkit. That puts these cockatoos in the rarefied realm along with chimpanzees as the only non­human animals known to use tool sets.

Last year, Garcia de Jesús reported on another epic cockatoo skill — outwitting humans trying to keep the birds from raiding trash cans (SN: 10/8/22 & 10/22/22, p. 10). Many people, myself included, have resorted to using a brick or a bungee to prevent nocturnal snacking by raccoons and opossums. The cockatoos of Sydney would scoff at such a paltry effort. They quickly figured out they could push off a brick. But they were thwarted, at least for now, when humans wedged water bottles or sticks into the bins’ back handles. The birds appear to be learning as the humans invent new defenses.

And lest you think bird brains have a lock on animal smarts, fish may be able to recognize themselves in photos or a mirror. Researchers in Japan found that when looking in a mirror, bluestreak cleaner wrasses would try to scrape off marks that researchers had put on their bodies. The fish could also distinguish their faces in photos from those of other cleaner fish. Not all scientists are convinced that the fish are self-aware, but piscine partisans say it’s time to give aquatic vertebrates their due, freelance contributor Betsy Mason reports.

That makes sense, given that goldfish can drive. Researchers in Israel taught six goldfish how to drive a water-filled tank to destinations around a room, we reported last year (SN: 2/12/22, p. 4). The fish were trained to steer toward a pink board on one side of the room and could find it even when researchers moved the board to another wall.

We loved the driving goldfish story so much that we turned it into a comic for Science News Explores, our magazine and website for younger readers. Evidently we weren’t the only people who were charmed. The navigating fish comic, along with another on the garbage bin–raiding cockatoos and a third about pandas’ camouflage skills, won the top award for science journalism for children in the 2022 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.

Thank you, animals, for continuing to amaze us, even as you chip away at our smug sense of superiority. Some animals even use computers, including non­human primates who have been trained to use touch screens. It’s only a matter of time before they’re writing editor’s notes.

See Science News Explores’ comic about goldfish drivers at

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.