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Parrot found to “teach” tool use to others

Sept. 10, 2014
Courtesy of the Royal Society
and World Science staff

Goffin’s cock­a­toos, a type of par­rot, can not only make and use tools but al­so teach oth­ers to do the same, a study con­cludes.

Sci­en­tists had pre­vi­ously con­clud­ed that the birds could fig­ure out how to make and use their own tools af­ter a cap­tive Goffin’s cock­a­too called Fi­garo sur­prised them by sculpting splin­ters from a wood­en beam in­to tools. He used those to get food and toys that were out of his reach.

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


“He sculpted the splin­ters as nec­es­sary by ad­just­ing their di­men­sions in or­der to re­trieve play or food ob­jects out of his reach,” sci­en­tists ex­plained in the new stu­dy, pub­lished Sept. 5 in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Roy­al So­ci­e­ty B.

Their re­search found that oth­er cock­a­toos could pick up the tech­nique from Fi­garo. They tested six male and six female hand-raised cock­a­toos, none of whom were known to use tools pre­vi­ously. 

Half the group, three males and three fema­les, watched Fi­garo dem­on­strat­ing how to use sticks to get food. The rest did­n’t watch that but in­stead viewed a “ghost” demon­stra­t­ion that en­abled them to get the food with­out tools: hid­den mag­nets brought the treat in­to reach.

Af­ter sev­er­al ses­sions, those who saw Fi­garo’s ex­am­ple were more likely to pick up and try to use the tools than the oth­ers, the study found. Ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists, the males in the group all man­aged to nab the food by the end of five demon­stra­t­ion ses­sions, and seemed to have learn­ed the skill from Fi­garo.

Two of the males who learn­ed how to use the tools were al­so tested to see if they could fig­ure out how to make their own tools, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­ported. One of the males spon­ta­ne­ously made his own tools with­out hav­ing seen Fi­garo mak­ing one, and the oth­er learn­ed af­ter see­ing Fi­garo’s ex­am­ple.

Al­though a few ap­par­ent ex­am­ples had been ob­served in the wild of birds spread­ing tool use, the be­hav­ior has­n’t been stud­ied un­der con­trolled con­di­tions, said the sci­en­tists, from the Uni­vers­ity of Vi­en­na, the Uni­vers­ity of Ox­ford and the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Or­nith­ol­o­gy in See­wiesen, Ger­ma­ny.

They added that the par­rots weren’t just cop­y­ing Fi­garo but learn­ing to em­u­late his re­sults. The birds ob­serv­ing Fi­garo used slightly dif­fer­ent tech­niques with the tools to dra­g the food in­to reach—tech­niques which the re­search­ers say were ar­guably bet­ter than Fi­garo’s demon­stra­t­ion.


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Goffin’s cockatoos, a type of parrot, can not only make and use tools but also teach others to do the same, a study concludes. Scientists had previously concluded that the birds could figure out how to make and use their own tools after a captive Goffin’s cockatoo called Figaro spontaneously sculpted splinters from a wooden beam into tools. He used those to get food and toys that were out of his reach. “He sculpted the splinters as necessary by adjusting their dimensions in order to retrieve play or food objects out of his reach,” scientists explained in the new study, published Sept. 5 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Their research found that other cockatoos could pick up the technique from Figaro. They tested six male and six female hand-raised cockatoos, none of whom were known to use tools previously. Half the group, three males and three females, watched Figaro demonstrating how to use sticks to get food. The rest didn’t watch Figaro’s demonstrations but instead viewed a “ghost” demonstration that enabled them to get the food without tools. Hidden magnets brought the food into reach. After several sessions, those who saw Figaro’s example were more likely to pick up and try to use the tools than the others, the study found. According to the scientists, the males in the group all managed to nab the food by the end of five demonstration sessions, and seemed to have learned the skill from Figaro. Two of the males who learned how to use the tools were also tested to see if they could figure out how to make their own tools, the investigators reported. One of the males spontaneously made his own tools without having seen Figaro making one, and the other learned after seeing Figaro’s example. Although a few apparent examples had been observed in the wild of birds spreading tool use, the behavior hasn’t been studied under controlled conditions, said the scientists, from the University of Vienna, the University of Oxford and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. They added that the parrots weren’t just copying Figaro but learning to emulate his results. The birds observing Figaro used slightly different techniques with the tools to drag the food into reach—techniques which the researchers say were arguably better than Figaro’s demonstration.