Scientists: Cockatoos learn to use tools by watching fellow birds

Posted Sep 6, 2014 by Megan Hamilton
If someone calls you a bird-brain, you may wish to consider that a compliment. Many birds, especially parrots, are very intelligent. One cockatoo in particular — the Goffin's cockatoo — has shown scientists that it can use tools to obtain food.
This shows a Goffin s cockatoo enjoying a rambutan fruit.
This shows a Goffin's cockatoo enjoying a rambutan fruit.
By Lip Kee Yap [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
What's even more interesting is this: They learn how to use tools by watching their buddies.
Scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute at Seewiesen made this discovery and it's thought to be the first controlled experimental evidence for the social transmission of tool use in any bird species, reports.
A couple of years ago, the researchers observed Figaro, a Goffin's cockatoo who'd been raised in captivity, as he was playing with a small stone in his aviary. What they found was that little Figaro snipped long splinters from the beams in his aviary then used them as a rake to haul in items that were outside the bars of his cage. Sometimes he also used twigs that he cut from branches in order to secure his prize, Oxford University reports.
The researchers who filmed him say they don't know how he learned this. What it does show, they say is how much we really don't understand regarding the evolution of innovative behavior and intelligence.
"During our daily observation protocols, Figaro was playing with a small stone," said Dr. Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna, the study's leader. "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."
Auersperg and her team decided to investigate a bit further, so they substituted the small stone with a nut and started to film. To their surprise, Figaro didn't go searching for a twig, but instead started biting a good-sized splinter out of the aviary beam, she said.
"He cut it when it was just the appropriate size and shape to serve as a raking tool to obtain the nut," she reported.
"It was already a surprise to see him use a tool, but we certainly did not expect him to make one by himself," Auersperg noted. "From that time on, Figaro was successful on obtaining the nut every single time we placed it there, nearly each time making new tools."
Clever little Figaro even used an alternative solution in one case — breaking a side arm off a branch, then modifying the leftover piece to the proper size for raking, she 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 fulfill a novel need," said professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, per the University of Oxford.
"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," he added.
Recently, the researchers made another surprising discovery.
They decided to see if other Goffin's cockatoos could learn these skills by watching Figaro.
In the experiments, one group of cockatoos watched Figaro at work with a ready-made tool, while another group watched what researchers called 'ghost demonstrations’ — either seeing the tools move the nuts by themselves under the control of magnets hidden under a table, or seeing the nuts move towards Figaro without his using tools, then using magnets to move the food again. At the next step, the birds were all placed in front of an identical problem, according to this article also published by Oxford University. A ready-made tool lay on the ground nearby.
Figaro's audience three males — and three females — watched the full demonstration and interacted much more with tools and other components of the problem than those who watched the ghost demos, the article noted. They picked up sticks more often than the control groups who watched the ghost demo videos and were more interested in completing the tasks. Weirdly, all three males in the group acquired proficient tool use, but the females in the same group and the males and females in the ghost demo groups did not, per the article.
"This is the first controlled evidence for the social transmission of an original tool use event in any bird so far," said Stefan Weber, a student from the University of Vienna who was involved in data collection, per the article.
Cockatoos that were successful didn't just imitate Figaro; their tool-use techniques were innovative and new. Figaro held tools by the tip, inserting them through the cage grid at different heights, raking the nuts towards him while at the same time adjusting the tool's position as the target moved closer. The observers who were successful instead laid the sticks on the ground and propelled the nuts into their reach by flipping them quickly. This technique was more efficient for the test circumstances, which were different from those in which Figaro had made his first discovery. In a sense, the pupils surpassed their teacher's performance, per Oxford University.
"This means that although watching Figaro was necessary for their success they did not imitate his exact motor activities," Ausperg said in this article. "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. This is typical of what psychologists would call 'emulation learning.'"
"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," said Kacelnik, who was also interviewed for this article. "This can act through paying more attention to the task, or some more demanding process such as empathising with the actor, but this is not known yet."
Two of the birds who were successful observers were tested later without any ready-made tools. Materials for making the tools was offered instead. One bird spontaneously started making his own tools out of a wood block, while the other failed at first. He was successful after a single demonstration session watching Figaro carve out tools from a wooden block, according to Oxford University.
"There is a substantial difference between repeating a teacher's behaviour and emulating his or her achievements while creating one's own methods," Kacelnik noted. "The latter implies a creative process stimulated by social interaction, while the former could, at least potentially, rely on simpler imitation. The cockatoos seem to emulate and surpass their teacher, which is what all good professors hope for from their best students."
So it seems that these attractive little 13-inch-long parrots are the soul of ingenuity. While they are bred for captivity in vast numbers, little about them is known in the wild, That Bird Blog reports.
Goffin's cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana) are found in Indonesia's Tanimbar Islands in the Banda Sea. It's been introduced in the Kai Islands and Singapore.
While common in captivity  the Goffin s cockatoo is likely rare in the wild.  This map shows a few o...
While common in captivity, the Goffin's cockatoo is likely rare in the wild. This map shows a few of the locations where they can be found.
Google Banda Sea Maps
They can be found in lowland primary and secondary forests and agricultural areas, That Bird reports.
As with so many other creatures, Goffin's cockatoo populations are in decline, and it's believed that there are more of these birds in captivity than in the wild, which is truly sad. They are listed by the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened. Habitat loss, along with the fact that they may be hunted as a crop pest or for food are creating a serious problem.
Perhaps the knowledge scientists are gaining about these marvelous little parrots can be used to help save them. That would be truly wonderful, if so.