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Figaro the Toolmaking Cockatoo Taught His Mates How to Craft Tools, Stunning Scientists


Goffin’s cockatoo named Figaro and his friends have long been amazing researchers with their ability to create and use tools to obtain food, requiring levels of intelligence that are considered similar to that of a 3-year-old human.

Not possessing the behavior in the wild to make tools, or even picks that are normally considered tool-making picks, three of these birds managed to create different tools to fish for cashew nuts from a sealed box.

Tool making, whether with sticks or hooks, is well documented in the Birds class. As Jennifer Ackerman brilliantly details in her work The genius of birds, Not only can newer Caledonian crows and some other birds make sticks to reach larvae in trees, they can also make sticks with hooks on the end, and they can even use composite material to make grabbing larvae a breeze.

Goffin’s cockatoos live on the small Tanimbar Islands, a small archipelago in Indonesia. They have become a model species for avian intelligence.

However, cockatoos, while undoubtedly intelligent, do not make tools in the wild and, unlike crows, whose beaks are fairly straight and adept at manipulating a tool, their curly beaks, designed to break through nuts and seeds, leave much to do. to wish.

One day four years ago At the Goffin laboratory in Vienna, an avian intelligence center, Figaro noticed a pebble outside its cage resting on a wooden beam. Desiring this pebble for his own works, he tried to bring it closer with a piece of bamboo.

Impressed, the researchers replaced the pebble with a cashew, prompting Figaro to poke his beak through the bars of his cage and gnaw a splinter of wood from the same beam the cashew rested on, before using the splinter to roll the cashew inside. extendable peak.

Class is in session

At Goldegg Goffin Laboratory, part of the Messerli Research Institute, the avian clubhouse where Figaro and his friends live, laboratory director Alice MI Auersperg wanted to see if Figaro could impart this self-generated wisdom to her companions.

Goffin Laboratory, Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine

Figaro shares the lab with 15 other cockatoos, none of which have a docked wing, and all participate in the tests on a voluntary basis, with the option of simply flying always available.

“Twelve Goffin saw demonstrations of Figaro or ‘ghost’ controls where tools and / or food were manipulated with magnets.” writes Auersperg, in the corresponding research work.

“The subjects who observed demonstrations showed greater performance related to the tools than the phantom controls, and the three men in this group … acquired proficiency in the use of tools.”

The competition in the use of tools was quite extreme. Figaro’s demonstrations included trimming the branches from a twig, splitting a thin board of larch wood, and even using its beak as a scissor to carefully chew through cardboard in a long enough tool.

Figaro’s best student was Dolittle, who was proficient in twig cutting, cardboard cutting and larch carpentry, while Pipin only handled the twig, having some kind of phobia towards larch wood.

Kiwi handled both larch wood and twig cutting, but failed with cardboard, which the researchers predicted would be the most difficult task.

In a shot to the moon, Auersperg also gave them beeswax, which none of the four birds could work with.

The ‘arena of innovation’

The use of tools was only the beginning of the Silicon Valley careers of Figaro and his friends, as Auersberg has more recently been comparing their intelligence to that of cockatoos which, unlike Figaro, have spent only a short time in captivity. .

Using a controlled environment to study both innovation behavior and innovation rate, Auersberg created the “Arena of Innovation” (AI), a semicircle of 20 different challenges, all primed with a preferred food reward. Each bird would have 20 minutes to freely explore, innovate, and get as many treats as they wanted to work.

“As far as we know, it is the first study to specifically focus on the rate of innovation per unit time in animals and the first systematically controlled direct comparison of problem solving between captive-born animals and animals temporarily captured from the wild.” read in the study, published in 2020. in the daily Scientific reports.

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“It produced a number of interesting findings, the most significant being that long-term captivity does not appear to affect the overall situation for the Goffins. capacity innovate in AI but its motivation to do it “.

“Captivity bias” is a term used by animal researchers to describe the increase in intelligence, related to problem solving, seen in animals held in long-term captivity compared to their wild companions.

Auersperg’s work presents a new paradigm, at least with birds, that group identity (captive, captured in the wild) could not predict the probability of finding solutions to the 20 problems.

In contrast, the demotivated birds (five wild-caught and one lab) consistently didn’t bother to interact with the AI, while the other participants (three wild-caught and 10 lab birds) “consistently maintained their interest in setup and discovered a similar number of solutions at the same speed. “

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This research presents a series of fascinating conclusions. First, that cockatoos can use tools and that they may have developed this behavior in the wild, or more amazingly, without ever having to use it in the real world. Second, cockatoos do not need to inherit intelligence through genetic instinct, but can actually learn by observing a partner, characteristics reserved for the most intelligent animals.

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Lastly, it shows that cockatoos should be considered very difficult pets. Not only can they live 40 years, but with the intelligence of a 3-year-old, they require constant mental stimulation to keep them healthy.

(WATCH the video of Figaro making tools below).

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