It’s been a big week for avian inteligence. Just recently we were delighted with videos of cockatoos using objects like cutlery, and an Australian duck named Ripper that has apparently learned to talk. Now news has arrived of a disabled kea that has adapted to their differences by employing tools into their self-care routine. The talented bird in question, who is named Bruce, was found missing most of the top half of his beak. Unable to nibble into his feathers to clean them in the way that birds do, Bruce has learned to use rocks and other items when preening his feathers, meaning that his unique beak needn’t leave him looking anything less than fresh.
This pressing news story was published in a paper in Scientific Reports, and according to the authors is the first evidence of tool use by a kea for the purpose of self-care. Led by researchers from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, it centers around a disabled kea (Nestor notabilis) named Bruce who lives at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch.
While anecdotal accounts of pet parrots using tools have been reported, the behavior among wild animals is rare and while Bruce is now housed in a reserve his behaviors were learned outside of captivity. Keas are famously smart animals, infamous for their love of destruction which has seen parts of New Zealand build bird gyms in an attempt to keep them busy. They exhibit contagious laughter and can judge statistical odds based on behaviors most likely to win them snacks – a behavior thought limited to primates prior to 2020.
A smart bunch indeed, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Bruce was able to overcome his asymmetrical beak with such panache.
“Kea do not regularly display tool use in the wild, so to have an individual innovate tool use in response to his disability shows great flexibility in their intelligence,” said PhD candidate Amalia Bastos from the University’s School of Psychology in a statement. “They’re able to adapt and flexibly solve new problems as they emerge.”
Bruce’s origin story is unknown, but he was discovered by researchers at Arthur’s Pass in New Zealand back in 2013 with the top half of his beak already missing. It’s possible that the injury was the result of a run-in with a pest trap, as New Zealand remains in an ongoing battle with invasive species such as possums who threaten their ground-dwelling birds, like their national treasure: the kiwi.
Bruce was offered soft foods so that he wouldn’t struggle but was observed eating hard foods anyway, using objects in place of his top beak to break them apart. Over time he proved capable of using a wide variety of objects by holding them between his tongue and lower beak. Then, in 2019, it was discovered that not only was Bruce using tools for feeding but also for self-care, as he would factor in a pebble to his preening routine.
“The pebbles he picked up were different to those picked up by other kea, they were always of a certain size,” said Bastos. “This points to an intentional act: to find a way to preen himself without the top half of his beak.”
Stay fabulous, Bruce.