A captive cockatoo has been observed spontaneously making tools to get at food – the first time any type of parrot’s been seen to do this.
Goffin’s cockatoos have never been known to use tools in the wild. But Figaro, who lives near Vienna, has been spotted using his beak to cut pieces of wood and use them to drag objects close enough to reach.
“During our daily observation protocols, Figaro was playing with a small stone. 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,” says Dr Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna.
“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.”
The cockatoo, she says, made sure it was just the appropriate size and shape to rake the nut forward and retrieve it.
“It was already a surprise to see him use a tool, but we certainly did not expect him to make one by himself,” she says.
“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 occasion, rather than using a splinter, he broke a side arm off a branch and cut the remaining piece down to the appropriate size for raking.
It’s the first time a cockatoo – or, indeed, any species of parrot – has been spotted making tools. It’s by no means unknown in other bird species, however.
For example, New Caledonian crows make tools in the wild and one, named Betty, surprised scientists by fashioning hooks out of wire to retrieve food that was out of reach.
“We confess to be still struggling to identify the cognitive operations that make these deeds possible. Figaro, and his predecessor Betty, may help us unlock many unknowns in the evolution of intelligence,” says Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University.
“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.”