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For The First Time, Scientists Spot A Bird Teaching His Friends To Use Tools

<p>A. Auersperg</p>

With crows that can work out physics problems and swallows that can open doors, there's plenty of evidence to put the epithet "bird brain" to rest. But, just like most humans need a good teacher to crack calculus, some birds benefit from having a tutor who shows how to use tools, a team of European scientists reported recently in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

"This is the first controlled evidence for the social transmission of an original tool use event in any bird so far," says Stefan Weber, a student at the University of Vienna and an author of the study.

A crafty Goffin's cockatoo named Figaro played the role of Tim Allen in "Home Improvement," demonstrating to other birds how to sweep a nut out from behind a cage using a stick:

The researchers also set up "ghost demonstrations," to determine Figaro's role in teaching the tool behavior. In the ghost demo, the scientists magnetically maneuvered nuts out from the cage toward Figaro as other cockatoos watched nearby.

Unimpressed by the spookiness of a ghost demo, the cockatoos were less likely to learn to use sticks this way - instead, most took up their sticks after watching Figaro's live demonstration. But Figaro's students didn't simply regurgitate their newfound knowledge of tools. The apprentices became even more adept than their teacher, according to the University of Oxford press release:

Figaro held tools by their tips, inserted them through the cage grid at different heights and raked the nuts towards him while adjusting the tool's position as the target moved closer. The successful observers, instead, laid the sticks on the ground and propelled the nuts into their reach by a quick ballistic flipping movement. The latter technique was arguably more efficient for the test circumstances, which differed from those in which Figaro had made his first discovery; the pupils in this sense surpassed the teacher's performance.
The teacher, Figaro holds the end of his rake with his beak, slowly nudging the nut out of the cage.
Dolittle, a student of Figaro's, swipes the nut out from under the cage.

Most of the cockatoos relied on pre-made sticks to access their nuts. But Figaro was also able to teach one of the other cockatoos, Kiwi, how to fashion a stick from a wooden block:

"There is a substantial difference between repeating a teacher's behavior and emulating his or her achievements while creating one's own methods. The latter implies a creative process stimulated by a social interaction, while the former could, at least potentially, rely on simpler imitation," says Oxford University behavioral ecologist Alex Kacelnik, in a statement. "The cockatoos seem to emulate and surpass their teacher, which is what all good professors hope for from their best students.' (Photos via A. Auersperg)