Tool use and manufacture, but by birds

By JW Dowey - 03 Sep 2014 10:1:0 GMT
Tool use and manufacture, but by birds

Native to distant deforested islands, there are many parrot species having a lot to offer in biodiversity. Their use in research should be a timely reminder of our potential loss of these species and all of these tropical forests; Cockatoo image; Credit: © Shutterstock

The life of parrots seems a lot more exciting with the latest research from A.M.I. Auersperg and 5 other scientists working at the Universities of Vienna and Oxford and the Max Plank Institute for Ornithology in Germany. They publish their paper in the Proc Roy Soc B as- Social transmission of tool use in Goffin cockatoos.

We see tools used by many diverse animals but have failed to investigate the phenomenon, despite its importance. The use of tools can be simple stereotyped motor patterns that can't be adapted, but science now sees the making of tools and socially-acquired tool use as indicating more advanced cognitive behaviour. 12 Goffin cockatoos (also known as the Tanimbar corella), Cacatua goffini were observers of a "teacher cockatoo", Figaro. Figaro used a wooden stick as a tool to rake in nuts from a box which he could not access otherwise. 3 males acquired Figaro's ability after 4 or 5 attempts while the ladies, seemed disinclined to do any more than push the tool about!

The key concept seems to have been how faithful the 3 males were to Figaro's role-model style demonstration. They adapted the tool in various ways, but didn't copy his technique. However this unique demonstration of socially acquired stick tool-use in birds stands out. Imitation or emulation seem to be involved here, depending on whether the individual matches actions or seeks to achieve the same results as Figaro. The authors prefer to think that this is emulation. This could be backed up by the continuation of the experiment when the males were proved capable of making their own suitable tools and selecting suitable sticks.

These birds don't seem to make tools in their native Tanimbar Islands in Indonesia, but their near-threatened status prevents many observations. It's likely that some of the captive birds that are often kept by enthusiasts may show this behaviour and help to work out the cognition processes. For more on this mammal/bird competition, this story on the famed African greys is quite funny!- Aping parrots.