Cockatoos have for the first time been observed in a controlled environment using tools and passing this knowledge on to others.
The discovery, made by scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute at Seewiesen, is thought to be the first experimental evidence for the social transmission of tool use in any bird species.
The smart birds are called Goffin’s cockatoo, a species of Indonesian parrot not known to use tools in the wild.
At a laboratory in Austria researchers saw a captive adult male Goffin’s cockatoo named Figaro spontaneously start to sculpt stick tools out of wooden aviary beams to use them for raking in nuts out of his reach.
To investigate if such invention could be passed on to other cockatoos, the team used Figaro as a role model, exposing other birds to tool use demonstrations, some with Figaro as teacher and others without his students seeing him at work.
A report of the research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The successful birds did not just imitate Figaro’s movements, their tool-use techniques were themselves new.
Figaro held tools by their tips, inserted them through the cage grid at different heights and raked the nuts towards him while adjusting the tool’s position as the target moved closer.
The successful observers, however, laid the sticks on the ground and propelled the nuts into their reach by a quick ballistic flipping movement.
The latter technique was arguably more efficient.
“This means that although watching Figaro was necessary for their success they did not imitate his exact motor activities,” says Dr Alice Auersperg who led the study at the Goffin Lab at the University of Vienna.
“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.”
There is a substantial difference between repeating a teacher’s behaviour and emulating his achievements while creating new methods.
The cockatoos seemed to emulate and surpass their teacher.
Watch Figaro at work: