Meet Figaro, the Cockatoo Who Can Make Tools

A Goffin’s cockatoo named Figaro makes and uses stick-type tools to rake in food, manufacturing them from different materials and displaying different steps and techniques, biologists from the University of Oxford and the University of Vienna say.

Figaro, the cockatoo that makes and uses stick-type tools to rake in food (Alice M.I. Auersperg et al)

Figaro, who has been reared in captivity and lives near Vienna, uses his powerful beak to cut long splinters out of wooden beams in its aviary, or twigs out of a branch, to reach and rake in objects out of its reach. How the bird discovered how to make and use tools is unclear but shows how much we still don’t understand about the evolution of innovative behavior and intelligence.

“During our daily observation protocols, Figaro was playing with a small stone. At some point he inserted the pebble through the cage mesh, and it fell just outside his reach. After some unsuccessful attempts to reach it with his claw, he fetched a small stick and started fishing for his toy,” explained Dr Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna, who led the study published in the journal Current Biology.

“To investigate this further we later placed a nut where the pebble had been and started to film. To our astonishment he did not go on searching for a stick but started biting a large splinter out of the aviary beam. He cut it when it was just the appropriate size and shape to serve as a raking tool to obtain the nut.”

These are tools made by Figaro (Alice M.I. Auersperg et al)

“It was already a surprise to see him use a tool, but we certainly did not expect him to make one by himself. From that time on, Figaro was successful on obtaining the nut every single time we placed it there, nearly each time making new tools. On one attempt he used an alternative solution, breaking a side arm off a branch and modifying the leftover piece to the appropriate size for raking.”

“Figaro shows us that, even when they are not habitual tool-users, members of a species that are curious, good problem-solvers, and large-brained, can sculpt tools out of a shapeless source material to fulfill a novel need,” said co-author Prof Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University.

“Even though Figaro is still alone in the species and among parrots in showing this capacity, his feat demonstrates that tool craftsmanship can emerge from intelligence not-specialized for tool use. Importantly, after making and using his first tool, Figaro seemed to know exactly what to do, and showed no hesitation in later trials.”

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Bibliographic information: Alice M.I. Auersperg et al. 2012. Spontaneous innovation in tool manufacture and use in a Goffin’s cockatoo. Current Biology, vol. 22, no. 21, R903-R904; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.002