Cockatoos teach each other to use tools

05 September 2014

A study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today shows that cockatoos can not only manufacture and use their own tools but also teach other cockatoos to do the same.

Scientists have previously shown that individual Goffin cockatoos can figure out how to make and use their own tools. A captive cockatoo called Figaro spontaneously sculpted splinters from a wooden beam into tools which he then used to retrieve food and toys that were out of his reach. Until now socially acquired tool use had not been seen in cockatoos but a study published today shows that after observing Figaro other cockatoos can pick up behaviours; demonstrating cockatoos can socially learn from example.

The team behind the study tested 6 male and 6 female hand-raised cockatoos. Before the experiment none of 12 cockatoos demonstrated use of tools. Half the group, 3 males and 3 females, observed Figaro demonstrating how to use wooden sticks to retrieve a piece of food from out of reach. The 6 birds in the other group did not watch Figaro’s demonstrations of tool use. Instead the researchers showed them a ‘ghost’ demonstration where the food was moved into reach by hidden magnets instead of by tool use.

After observing the tasks in a series of sessions the group who saw Figaro’s demonstration were more likely to pick up and attempt to use the tools than the group who had only seen the ghost demonstration and not seen Figaro’s example of using the tools to get at the food. The 3 males in the group all managed to use the tools to nab the food by the end of 5 demonstration sessions and appeared to have learned this behaviour from watching Figaro.

Two of the males who learned how to use the tools were also tested to see if they could figure out how to make their own tools. One of the males spontaneously made his own tools without having seen a demonstration of Figaro making one. The other did not learn on his own but once he had seen Figaro making a tool he replicated the behaviour.

The team say that the birds were not simply copying Figaro but were learning to emulate his results.  The birds observing Figaro used slightly different techniques with the tools to drag the food into reach- techniques which the researchers say were arguably better than Figaro’s demonstration.  The team say the results show cockatoos can socially transmit learnt behaviour.