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Parrot wasn’t supposed to make tools, but he did

Nov. 6, 2012
Courtesy of University of Oxford
and World Science staff

A par­rot de­ter­mined to grab an out-of-reach peb­ble has fig­ured out how to make tools to get it—e­ven though par­rots aren’t known to make tools in the wild, bi­ol­o­gists say.

For an an­i­mal to start mak­ing tools spon­ta­ne­ously when oth­ers of its spe­cies don’t is al­most un­heard of, sci­en­tists say—and shows we still have a lot to learn about the won­ders of the brain, an­i­mal or hu­man.

Figaro re­trieves a nut with his own tool. Click here for vid­eo. (Cour­tesy A. Ka­cel­nik/Ox­ford U.)


The feat shows that “tool crafts­man­ship can emerge from in­tel­li­gence not-specialized for tool use,” said Al­ex Kacel­nik of Ox­ford Uni­vers­ity, a co-author of a re­port on the find­ings.

The par­rot, Fi­garo, of a type called a Goffin’s cock­a­too, was reared in cap­ti­vity and lives near Vi­en­na, Aus­tria. Fi­garo has now been filmed re­peat­edly us­ing his pow­er­ful beak to pry long splin­ters off from along the edge of a wood­en beam. He then uses the re­sult­ing stick-like de­vices as sorts of rakes, which he thrusts through a met­al grat­ing to pull in ob­jects that he needs. 

The pro­cess is of­ten clum­sy and slow, be­cause there is no def­i­nite hook on the end of the tools, and that makes it hard to use them for pulling some­thing in­ward. None­the­less, with per­sis­tence, and only some­times a bit of hu­man help, Fi­garo makes it hap­pen.

How Fi­garo de­vel­oped this abil­ity is un­clear but it shows how much we still don’t un­der­stand about the ev­o­lu­tion of in­no­va­tive be­hav­ior and in­tel­li­gence, the sci­en­tists said. Their re­port is pub­lished this week in the jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.

Fi­garo’s skill came to the at­ten­tion of sci­en­tists in­clud­ing Al­ice Auersperg of the Uni­vers­ity of Vi­en­na. At one point dur­ing a daily ses­sion dur­ing which he was un­der their ob­serva­t­ion, “Fi­garo was play­ing with a small stone,” she 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,” added Auersperg, who led the stu­dy. “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. On one at­tempt he used an al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tion, break­ing a side arm off a branch and mod­i­fy­ing the left­o­ver piece to the ap­pro­pri­ate size for rak­ing.”

“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 ful­fill a nov­el need,” said Kacel­nik. “Fi­garo is still alone in the spe­cies and among par­rots in show­ing this ca­pa­city.”

He added that “after mak­ing and us­ing his first tool, Fi­garo seemed to know ex­actly what to do, and showed no hesita­t­ion in lat­er tri­als.”

Kacel­nik pre­vi­ously led stud­ies in the nat­u­ral tool-us­ing New Cal­e­do­ni­an crows. One of them, named Bet­ty, sur­prised sci­en­tists by fash­ion­ing hooks out of wire to re­trieve food that was out of reach. These crows use and make tools in the wild, and live in groups that may sup­port cul­ture, but there was no prec­e­dent for Bet­ty’s form of hook mak­ing. Her case is still con­sid­ered a strik­ing ex­am­ple of in­di­vid­ual cre­ati­vity and in­nova­t­ion, and Fi­garo seems ready to join her.

“We con­fess to be still strug­gling to iden­ti­fy the cog­ni­tive opera­t­ions that make these deeds pos­si­ble,” Kacel­nik said. “Fi­garo, and his pred­e­ces­sor Bet­ty, may help us un­lock many un­knowns in the ev­o­lu­tion of in­tel­li­gence.”


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A parrot determined to grab an out-of-reach pebble has figured out how to make tools to get it—even though parrots aren’t known to make tools in the wild, biologists say. To have an animal start making tools spontaneously when others of its species don’t is practically unheard of, scientists say—and shows we still have a lot to learn about the wonders of the brain, animal or human. The feat shows that “tool craftsmanship can emerge from intelligence not-specialized for tool use,” said Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University, a co-author of a report on the findings. The parrot, Figaro, of a type called a Goffin’s cockatoo, was reared in captivity and lives near Vienna. Figaro has now been filmed repeatedly using his powerful beak to pry long splinters off from along the edge of a wooden beam. He then uses the resulting stick-like devices as sorts of rakes, which he thrusts through a metal grating to pull in objects that he needs. The process is often clumsy and slow, because there is no definite hook on the end of the tools, and that makes it hard to use them for pulling something inward. Nonetheless, with persistence, and only sometimes a bit of human help, Figaro makes it happen. Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Vienna filmed Figaro at work. How Figaro developed this ability is unclear but shows how much we still don’t understand about the evolution of innovative behaviour and intelligence, the scientists said. A report on the research is published this week in the journal Current Biology and an accompanying video showing the behaviour is available here. Figaro’s skill came to the attention of scientists including Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna. At one point during a daily session during which he was under their observation, “Figaro was playing with a small stone,” she 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,” added Auersperg, who led the study. “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. On one attempt he used an alternative solution, breaking a side arm off a branch and modifying the leftover piece to the appropriate size for raking.” “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,” said Kacelnik. “Figaro is still alone in the species and among parrots in showing this capacity.” He added that “after making and using his first tool, Figaro seemed to know exactly what to do, and showed no hesitation in later trials.” Kacelnik previously led studies in the natural tool-using New Caledonian crows. One of them, named Betty, surprised scientists by fashioning hooks out of wire to retrieve food that was out of reach. These crows use and make tools in the wild, and live in groups that may support culture, but there was no precedent for Betty’s form of hook making. Her case is still considered as a striking example of individual creativity and innovation, and Figaro seems ready to join her. “We confess to be still struggling to identify the cognitive operations that make these deeds possible,” Kacelnik said. “Figaro, and his predecessor Betty, may help us unlock many unknowns in the evolution of intelligence.”