Cockatoos Learn How To Make and Use Tools From Each Other

Self-taught innovator Figaro uses tool like a rake to drag nut within reach / A. Auersperg
Janet Fang 03/09/2014, 22:42

A curious species of Indonesian parrot can learn to make and use wooden tools -- and this innovation can be successfully spread from the inventor to others. The work, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week, is the first to show social transmission of original tool use in birds. 

A few years ago in an Austrian lab, a captive adult Goffin cockatoo (Cacatua goffini) male named Figaro spontaneously started sculpting stick tools out of wooden aviary beams. He then used his own tools to rake in nuts that were just out of his reach on the other side of the enclosure. 

To see if the skill could be transmitted to other cockatoos, a team led by Alice Auersperg from the University of Vienna got twelve cockatoos to watch either Figaro demonstrating how to use a tool or a “ghost” demonstration, where the tools and nuts were manipulated using hidden magnets. Pictured to the right, Figaro giving a tool-making demonstration as Kiwi watches.

The group that watched Figaro's complete demonstration interacted more with the ready-made tools, picking up sticks and showing more interest than the “ghost” controls, who showed no progress in a tool-use task.

The successful tool users -- Dolittle, Kiwi, and Pipin, who were all male -- developed their own techniques, and two of them advanced on to tool manufacturing. Self-taught Figaro held on to the splinters by the tip, inserted them through the wire mesh at different heights, and raked the nuts towards him, adjusting the tool's position as the target moved closer. Pipin laid the stick on the ground and propelled the nut into his reach using a quick ballistic flipping movement, while Dolittle swept the nut towards him.

“Although watching Figaro was necessary for their success, they did not imitate his exact motor activities,” Auersperg explains in a news release. “Successful observers seemed to attend to the result of Figaro's interaction with the tool but developed their own strategies for reaching the same result, rather than copying his actions.” Emulating a teacher’s behavior while creating your own, and possibly more efficient, method implies “a creative process stimulated by a social interaction,” says study co-author Alex Kacelnik from Oxford University.

He adds: “The cockatoos seem to emulate and surpass their teacher, which is what all good professors hope for from their best students.”

None of the six birds in the “ghost” control group acquired proficient tool use (and curiously, nor did any of the females who watched Figaro’s demonstration). “The importance of them needing an active live demonstrator is that they seem to be sensitive to 'agency' -- the existence of a subject whose goal they share,” Kacelnik explains

Can’t get enough? In this video, you can watch Dolittle and Kiwi fashion a stick by breaking a larger piece of wood. 

Images: A. Auersperg

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