Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Cockatoo 'makes and uses tools'

Figaro has been observed spontaneously making and using tools for reaching food and other objects (Oxford University/PA)

A cockatoo called Figaro has astonished scientists by figuring out how to manufacture and use tools.

It is the first time a parrot has shown this ability. The captive-reared Goffin's cockatoo uses his bird brain to fashion wooden sticks just the right size and shape for retrieving nuts placed out of his reach.

Austrian animal behaviour experts noticed that Figaro was more than just a pretty boy while observing him playing with a small stone.

Dr Alice Auersperg, from the University of Vienna, 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. 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 shares a large aviary with a group of other Goffin's cockatoos at a research facility near Vienna, where scientists are studying their intelligence. A description of his abilities appears in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.

New Caledonian crows, jays and Kea parrots are all known to use stick tools. Both crows and jays have been observed constructing tools, but Figaro is the first example of a tool-making parrot.

Professor Alex Kacelnik, from Oxford University, who led previous research on New Caledonian crows and was a member of the team studying Figaro, said: "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.

"Even though Figaro is still alone in the species and among parrots in showing this capacity, his feat demonstrates that tool craftsmanship can emerge from intelligence not-specialized for tool use. Importantly, after making and using his first tool, Figaro seemed to know exactly what to do, and showed no hesitation in later trials."

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