Cockatoos Watch and Learn From 'Teacher' Birds

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After watching another bird demonstrate, Kiwi manufactures a tool.
A. Auersperg

On the heels of monkeys excelling in school comes news that Goffin's cockatoos can learn from each other how to make and use tools. These Indonesian parrots, it seems, have some potential in the classroom, too.

The discovery is being hailed by researchers as the first evidence in a lab setting of a bird species socially transmitting tool use from one to another.

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The bird species in question isn't known for tool use in the wild. But a Griffin's cockatoo (Cacatua goffini) named Figaro was observed in the lab making stick tools out of the wooden beams of his aviary and using the implements to pull some tasty nuts toward him that were otherwise out of his reach behind the gridded bars of a cage.

Scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute at Seewiesen wanted to find out if other cockatoos could learn from Figaro how to make the same type of food rake. They used two groups of cockatoos as "students," with Figaro playing the role of the teacher.

One group of cockatoos watched Figaro use his hand-crafted food-getting tool. The second group was only able to watch what researchers termed "ghost demonstrations": Thanks to hidden magnets that moved the tool, these parrots could see either the device moving the nuts by itself or the nuts moving toward Figaro himself, without the teacher's input.

The results showed these parrots can be quick studies. Set to the same task as was Figaro -- with a tool nearby and nuts to be retrieved -- six cockatoos (three male, three female) that had previously seen all of Figaro's deft work with the stick exhibited much more interaction with the tool and puzzled more over the food retrieval problem than did the ghost-demo control group.

Of those astute six, three (all males) went on to demonstrate proficiency with tools. These birds went beyond Figaro's approach and developed their own, more efficient technique for using the tool. Whereas Figaro inserted the tool through varying heights of the cage grid in order to "rake" the nuts toward him, his three whip-smart students laid the stick flat on the ground and used it to sweep the goodies their way.

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"This means that although watching Figaro was necessary for their success they did not imitate his exact motor activities," Dr. Alice Auersperg said of the overachieving students. Auersperg, who led the study from the Goffin Lab at the University of Vienna, added "This is typical of what psychologists would call emulation learning."

Later, two of those successful parrot students were offered materials to make the tool. One was able to spontaneously make a tool while the other could do the same after it had seen a demonstration by Figaro of his carpentry skills.

Oxford University team member Alex Kacelnik noted that the parrots seemed to go beyond mere imitation of a teacher's behavior and instead displayed creative thinking spurred on by social interaction. "The cockatoos seem to emulate and surpass their teacher, which is what all good professors hope for from their best students," he said.

The team's findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.