By Dan Satherley
A cockatoo in Austria has astounded researchers by not only using a stick to retrieve a cashew nut just out of his reach, but crafting his own tools to get the job done.
Figaro, a Goffin's cockatoo at the University of Vienna was first spotted playing with a pebble in his aviary. When he dropped it just outside the mesh of his enclosure, the quick-thinking parrot grabbed a twig and holding it in his mouth, fished it back within reach.
"To investigate this further we later placed a nut where the pebble had been and started to film," says lead researcher Alice Auersperg.
"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."
She says it was already a surprise to see him use a stick as 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," says Auersperg. "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."
No other bird of his species – or any other parrot species – has ever been seen to make and use tools.
Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University says although bird brains aren't wired for making tools, Figaro's abilities show they can still improvise if they want to.
"Importantly, after making and using his first tool, Figaro seemed to know exactly what to do, and showed no hesitation in later trials."
Kacelnik has conducted previous studies on bird intelligence, and once observed a crow named Betty inventing a type of hook in order to retrieve food out of reach.
"We confess to be still struggling to identify the cognitive operations that make these deeds possible," says Kacelnik. "Figaro, and his predecessor Betty, may help us unlock many unknowns in the evolution of intelligence."
Details of Figaro's achievements are detailed in the latest issue of journal Current Biology.