Bird the Tool-maker

Figaro the cockatoo makes and uses a tool

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Figaro makes wooden tools to get food. Credit: Alice Auersperg

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A Goffin's cockatoo is a highly playful and curious type of Indonesian parrot. So cognitive biologists are now using them as a model to investigate intelligent behavior in birds. Together with researchers from the University of Oxford, Alice Auersperg and Birgit Szabo from the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna have made a suprising discovery: "We were able to film the cockatoo 'Figaro' using its powerful beak to cut long splinters out of wooden beams or breaking off and modifying a side arm of a branch, to rake in a nut that was out of its direct reach," explains Alice Auersperg, who led the study.

Figaro, a Goffin's Cockatoo, makes and uses a tool. Credit: Alice Auersperg, Birgit Szabo, Auguste von Bayern, Alex Kacelnik

For researchers it came as a surprise that Figaro, a cockatoo, used a tool at all, and all the more so, given that he made it by himself. The most important observation was that this parrot, after having managed to fashion his first tool, should know what to do without hesitation in further experiments.

"Figaro made a new tool for every nut we placed there and each time the bird was successful in obtaining it," says Auersperg.

Goffin's cockatoos are endlessly curious, known to be good problem solvers, and large-brained. However, they are unlikely to be habitual tool users in the wild. "Until now Figaro is the only one in his species in which we could observe this behavior," Birgit Szabo says.

"It is still difficult to identify cognitive operations. Figaro, and his predecessor Betty, may help us unlock many unknowns in the evolution of intelligence," Alex Kacelnik, professor at the University of Oxford, explains.

Kacelnik is one of the authors of the study and was also involved in another study describing the behavior of the famous New Caledonian crow Betty, who surprised experts by fashioning hooks out of wire, to fish food out of a pipe. Even though these crows were known to use tools in the wild, there was no precedent of this form of tool making, and the case is still considered to be a striking example of individual creativity and innovation.

"For a long time such talents were attributed only to our closest relatives, the great apes. Since then, however, tool use has been reported in capuchin monkeys, some birds and even some invertebrates," Alice Auersperg explains. While the tool-using club is admitting new members, scientists are still puzzling over the roles of intelligence, culture and ecology in promoting and supporting such competences.

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Adapted from materials obtained from the AAAS