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New Paper Friday

Tool manufacture by cockatoos

Patricia Jones

This week's paper is in Biology Letters and comes from Alice Auersperg at the University of Vienna. Goffin's cockatoo, Cacatua goffiniana, is native to the Tanimbar Islands in Indonesia. The almost complete absence of publications on this species suggest that little is known about it, although it is common in the pet trade and listed by the IUCN as "near threatened" in the wild. Prof. Auersperg references "ongoing fieldwork" in this paper, so hopefully there will be more to come!

The authors of this paper do say that Goffin's cockatoo does not use tools in the wild, or make nests. Not making nests is important, because it could be that the manipulation of sticks for nest-building predisposed birds to use of sticks as tools (although as far as I can tell there is no evidence to support this hypothesis). Previous research with Goffin's cockatoo showed that birds can socially learn how to use tools from watching a demonstrator bird. Their demonstration was given by a particularly crafty cockatoo, Figaro, who had on his own figured out how to make tools by breaking off pieces of larch wood shingle and used them to get nuts that were out of reach past his cage bars. The watching cockatoos only learned if they watched Figaro, not if they watched a robotic demonstration of the tool use. What was particularly interesting about that study is that some of the birds who watched Figaro used the tool, then started making tools to use, without ever seeing a demonstration of tool-making. 

But back to the paper at hand. This study builds off the previous one by examining how flexible the cockatoos are in their tool-making. In particular, the authors wanted to know if the birds could make tools from a range of different materials that required different manufacturing techniques. They showed that not only can the cockatoos break of larch wood shingle splinters, they also can strip the leaves from beech twigs and use those, and clip out pieces of cardboard with their beaks to use (see the adorable video above). The authors additionally tried beeswax to see if cockatoos could mold tools out of it. Apparently this was a failure. The paper reads "All made a few attempts to mould the wax, which resulted in useless segments which stuck to their beaks, and they soon lost motivation to interact with this material". Also adorable.