Clever cockatoo creates his own tools

A cockatoo called Figaro has astonished scientists by figuring out how to manufacture and use tools.

The captive-reared Goffin’s cockatoo uses his bird brain to fashion wooden sticks just the right size and shape for retrieving nuts placed out of his reach.

Austrian animal behaviour experts noticed Figaro was more than just a pretty boy while observing him playing with a stone.

Dr Alice Auersperg, from the University of Vienna, said: “At some point he inserted the pebble through the cage mesh, and it fell just outside his reach. After some unsuccessful attempts to reach it with his claw, he fetched a small stick and started fishing for his toy.

“To investigate this further we later placed a nut where the pebble had been and started to film. To our astonishment he did not go on searching for a stick but started biting a large splinter out of the aviary beam. He cut it when it was just the appropriate size and shape to serve as a raking tool to obtain the nut.

“It was already a surprise to see him use a tool, but we certainly did not expect him to make one by himself. From that time on, Figaro was successful on obtaining the nut every single time we placed it there, nearly each time making new tools.”

Figaro shares an aviary with other Goffin’s cockatoos at a research facility near Vienna, where scientists are studying their intelligence. A description of his abilities appears in Current Biology.

New Caledonian crows, jays, and Kea parrots are all known to use stick tools. Both crows and jays have been observed constructing tools, but Figaro is the first tool-making parrot.

Professor Alex Kacelnik, from Oxford University, a member of the team studying Figaro, said: “Figaro shows us that, even when they are not habitual tool-users, members of a species that are curious, good problem-solvers, and large-brained, can sculpt tools out of a shapeless source material to fulfil a novel need.

Wild Goffin’s cockatoos live in large social groups in tropical forests on the Indonesian Tanimbar islands. There are no reports of the birds using tools in their natural habitat.

The researchers recorded Figaro making 10 different tools in 10 trials. Nine were manufactured, either from wooden splinters or, in one case, a twig picked up off the aviary floor. Figaro performed a complex series of operations to modify the branching twig and turn it into a suitable tool.

The scientists wrote: “The first cut was discarded. He then removed a large side arm from near the twig’s stem by stepping on the stem whilst twisting off the side-arm with his beak. Figaro tried the entire side-arm first, but after an unsuccessful insertion attempt shortened the remaining first by a third and finally cut the remaining part in half. He used the resulting... piece successfully to retrieve the food.”

Two other Goffin’s cockatoos, Pipin and Heidi, were also tested. Pipin did not try to use tools, but Heidi made some unsuccessful attempts after watching Figaro at work.


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