Meet Figaro: the carpenter cockatoo

Parrot with stick cockatoo
CC BY 2.0 Kakadu Figaro uses an elongated wood splitter to get to the coveted nut. Photo by: Alice Auersperg

Figaro had a problem. He could see nuts outside his cage, but he couldn't reach them. It was frustrating - like they were taunting him.

Unfortunately for the nuts, Figaro is a Goffin cockatoo, a species known for its problem solving abilities. Using wooden beams from his aviary, Figaro sculpted a tool and began to rake in the nuts. His carers, researchers from the University of Vienna and Oxford University, began to wonder if Figaro could teach his lab mates the trick.

To test it out, the researchers made two cockatoo groups. One group watched Figaro use a ready made tool to reach some nuts. Another group watched the tool move 'magically' on its own (with the use of magnets) to scoop nuts through the bar. They also watched the nuts 'magically' move towards Figaro (again, with magnets).

Then the cockatoos were left with a ready made stick tool and nuts on the other side of the cage. The group that watched the 'magic' happen without any intervention from Figaro did not try to use the stick. The group that watched Figaro do the work interacted with the tool, but it was only the male cockatoos - Dolittle, Kiwi and Pipin - who successfully gathered nuts. And they didn't just copy Figaro, they developed their own methods for nut grabbing.

Observation is used to explore whether the other cockatoos can learn this technique. Photo by: Alice Auersperg/CC BY 2.0

"Although watching Figaro with the tool was necessary for their success they did not imitate his exact motor activities,” said lead researcher Dr. Alice Auersperg in a press release. “Successful observers seemed to attend to the result of Figaro's interaction with the tool but developed their own strategies for reaching the same result, rather than copying his actions. This is typical of what psychologists would call emulation learning."

The researchers found that Dolittle, Kiwi and Pipins' methods were more effective than Figaros'.They were able to flick the nuts back towards them rather than rake the nuts like Figaro had. None of the male cockatoos had watched Figaro carve his tool, but one figured out how to do it on his own. The other two learned after Figaro did a demonstration for them.

"There is a substantial difference between repeating a teacher's behaviour and emulating his or her achievements while creating one's own methods,” Prof. Alex Kacelnik, from the University of Oxford, said in a press release. “The latter implies a creative process stimulated by a social interaction, while the former could, at least potentially, rely on imitation."

In the end, the students surpassed the teacher.

Tags: Animals | Birds


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