Figaro is the first cockatoo to have been observed using tools. And in his case, he makes his own tools, customizing them for the job at hand.
Many kinds of birds have been seen using tools – most recently the crows of New Caledonia, who can shape bits of wood and palm leaves into spears and hooks to forage for grubs. But it’s never been seen before in cockatoos. Watch Figaro in action:
Figaro lives at the University of Vienna, Austria, where, one day, one of the students saw him playing with a pebble by dropping it through the wire mesh of his aviary and then retrieving it with a piece of bamboo. When the team tested him out by putting a nut just out of reach, Figaro tore a wooden splinter from one of the beams of the aviary and used that to retrieve the nut.
According to Alice Auersperg, a cognitive biologist and the lead author of a new paper about Figaro:
“He did everything: tool use, tool manufacture, and tool modification, and he made them so quickly. His second tool took him less than 5 minutes to make, which is a drastic reduction.”
Parrots have large brains, relative to their overall body size. They’re also social and they have long lives. In ScienceNOW, wildlife biologist John Marzluff is quoted as saying that all this fosters “innovative, cognitive problem solving.” In the wild, much of their brain power is directed toward their social life and complex relationships.
“But put that same mind behind bars and give it a reason to make a tool, and bingo, a tool is made,” Marzluff says. “It makes you wonder what other thoughts are rattling around the brains of pet parrots everywhere!”