Saturday 1 November 2014

How cockatoos use wooden tools

Published 03/09/2014 | 00:12

Cockatoos have been observed making and using wooden tools to obtain food

Cockatoos learning carpentry skills sounds like something out of Monty Python. But this is serious science, not surreal humour. Researchers have observed these brainy birds teaching each other how to make and use wooden tools to obtain food.

How did it all all start?

It all began with a captive Goffin's cockatoo named Figaro. Austrian researchers were incredibly surprised when Figaro started spontaneously fashioning stick tools from aviary beam splinters, and using them to rake up nuts.

This was strange because his species - originally from Indonesia - are not known to use tools in the wild. And Figaro was not alone, as the other cockatoos started following his lead.

How did the scientists respond?

By initiating a series of experiments, of course! The birds watched Figaro use his little wooden tools. They then copied his actions by using ready-made sticks to obtain food.

In the experiments, one group of cockatoos was shown Figaro at work with his stick tool. Meanwhile scientists baffled another with "ghost demonstrations" in which hidden magnets were used to make sticks and nuts move - apparently on their own.

The parrots who watched Figaro's performance were much more likely to pick up and try out stick tools for themselves than those seeing the ghost demonstrations.

Then what happened?

Then amazing things started happening. Rather than simply imitating Figaro - parrot-fashion, so to speak - the other parrots developed their own techniques adapted to work best in the test situation.

While Figaro held sticks by their tips and inserted them through his cage grid at different heights to reach the nuts, his pupils did things differently.

The successful observers laid the sticks on the ground and used a quick flipping movement to propel the nuts to within their reach.

Their technique was better suited to the test conditions, which differed from those Figaro found himself in when he had his initial Eureka moment.

Two of the cockatoos even managed to carve their own tools out of a wooden block. One brainy bird came up with the idea himself, while the other was inspired by a carpentry demonstration given by Figaro.

Why are scientists excited?

Other birds, like woodpecker finches and New Caledonian crows, are also know to use tools. However, in both species tool use seems to be largely inherited rather than learned.

Professor Alex Kacelnik, a member of the research team from Oxford University, explains why these cockatoos are so special: "There is a substantial difference between repeating a teacher's behaviour and emulating his or her achievements while creating one's own methods.

"The cockatoos seem to emulate and surpass their teacher, which is what all good professors hope for from their best students."

Was anything else discovered?

Only that cockatoos conform to old gender stereotypes. The male cockatoos turned out to be much better with tools than females. All three males in the group watching Figaro's demonstration became expert stick wielders, while none of the three females did.

Press Association

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