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Scientists prove birds learn to use tools from their peers

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The first documented evidence that any species of bird learns how to make and use tools from other birds has been discovered by scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute at Seewiesen. The study involved Goffin's cockatoo (Cacatua goffini) a species of Indonesian parrot that is known to use tools in the wild. The discovery was presented in the Sept. 2, 2014, edition of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

A captive adult male Goffin's cockatoo named 'Figaro' was observed to be extremely adept at fashioning tools from wooden cage beams. The bird made the tools in order to retrieve food that was outside the cage and out of the bird’s reach. Figaro was selected as the teacher for other Goffin's cockatoos in order to determine if the birds could learn tool making from another bird.

Three male and three female cockatoos were selected for the study. Some of the birds were show films of a stick retrieving food and a magnet moving food without any other bird being involved. The second set of subject birds observed Figaro doing his bit only.

The birds that watched Figaro learned how to retrieve food they could not reach by using tools while the birds that did not have a bird-teacher did not. The birds that learned from Figaro did not simply imitate Figaro’s methods. Each bird developed their own methodology for using wooden tools to get food they could not reach. A video of Figaro and the other birds can be seen here.

This is the first known demonstration that at least one species of bird learns how to use tools from another bird and improves on the teaching bird’s methods. Improving on a learned skill was previously thought to be a human or mammal ability. Learning from other beings and improving on the learned behavior may be an extremely ancient behavior and may even be organic in part because birds are extremely ancient in origin.