Learned tool use has been demonstrated in a species of bird for the first time, in a study undertaken by a team of European scientists. A batch of Goffin's cockatoos learned how to use a stick to poke nuts through a grid cage by watching a role model perform the task. Some of the birds then developed their own superior tool-making techniques, causing researchers to believe that they were displaying social acquisition of tool use, previously unseen in birds. Jim Drury reports.
Kiwi the cockatoo is hungry and will use any means to grab a nut....even making a tool to get at it. He's one of a group of Goffin's cockatoos that demonstrated the first known social transmission of tool use seen in birds. So says University of Oxford Professor Alex Kacelnik, who co-authored a study on the phenomenon with Vienna University researcher Dr Alice Auersperg. Kacelnik says it all started by accident when Auersperg saw male bird Figaro retrieving food. SOUNDBITE (English) STUDY CO-AUTHOR, PROFESSOR ALEX KACELNIK, FROM OXFORD UNIVERSITY'S DEPARTMENT OF ZOOLOGY, SAYING: "When he couldn't find any suitable stick in the ground he made one, which is one stage further in complexity, by actually chewing through the edge of wooden beams in the aviary, effectively destroying the aviary but getting splinters that he could use to reach where he needed." The pair set up experiments to see whether tool use could be taught, using Figaro as a role model. What they found surprised them.... Not only did male cockatoos learn tool creation, but they developed new improved techniques. Dolittle came top of the class. SOUNDBITE (English) STUDY CO-AUTHOR PROFESSOR ALEX KACELNIK, FROM OXFORD UNIVERSITY'S DEPARTMENT OF ZOOLOGY, SAYING: "We exposed Dolittle to a situation where there is no tool, but there is just a block of wood and he has in between learned to use tools by watching Figaro but he hasn't made one by himself yet and he never saw Figaro making a tool. But he discovers by himself how to do it and he uses it in his own way which is very different from the one that Figaro used. So this animal was prompted into the next step of innovation." The team was stunned to see the pupils surpass their teacher's performance. Further research is planned, partly to see why male cockatoos fared better than females. Until now tool use was thought unique to corvids like New Caledonian crows. But now it seems the Goffin's cockatoos don't just have this ability.....they're also skilled carpenters.