The latest human-like ability from the animal world is being displayed by a cockatoo in Vienna, who is the first member of the parrot family to exhibit tool-making ability.
In his aviary at Vienna University, Figaro has been observed fashioning wooden sticks just the right size and shape for retrieving nuts placed out of his reach.
A Goffin’s cockatoo from the Indonesian Tanimbar islands, he was first seen using his bird brain in a novel way while playing with a small stone in his cage.
“At some point he inserted the pebble through the cage mesh, and it fell just outside his reach,” said the University’s Dr Alice Auersperg. “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.”
Dr Auersperg added: “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.”
Figaro, whose exploits are featured in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology shares a large aviary with a group of other Goffin's cockatoos at a research facility near Vienna, where scientists are studying their intelligence.
There are no reports of the birds using tools in their natural tropical forest habitat, but the researchers recorded Figaro making 10 different tools in 10 trials. Nine were manufactured, either from wooden splinters or, in one case, a twig picked up off the aviary floor.
Figaro performed a complex series of operations to modify the branching twig and turn it into a suitable tool.
The researchers write: “The first cut was discarded. He then removed a large side arm from near the twig's stem by stepping on the stem whilst twisting off the side-arm with his beak.
“Figaro tried the entire side-arm first, but after an unsuccessful insertion attempt shortened the remaining first by a third and finally cut the remaining part in half. He used the resulting piece successfully to retrieve the food.”
Both crows and jays have been observed constructing tools, but Figaro is the first example of a tool-making parrot.
“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,” said Professor Alex Kacelnik, from Oxford University, who led previous research on New Caledonian crows and was a member of the team studying Figaro.
“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.”