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Keas using stick tools & learning by observing each other

The use of tools by parrots and other birds has been observed for a while. A new study conducted by Dr. Alice Auersperg shows this also in Keas. What is particularly remarkable about this study is that Keas who were not able to retrieve a treat with a stick tool initially, were able to do so after observing another bird do so. Without further ado – here is Alice’s press release and video:

The use of objects as tools is rarley observed in non-human animals and is often considered one of the highlighting features of intelligent species. Reseachers from the University of Vienna show how kea, clever New Zealand parrots, not only learn to use a stick-like object to reach a food reward but can also navigate the functional end of their tool into a desired direction.

During this study, which was conducted by Dr. Alice Auersperg at the Department for Cognitive Biology, kea were able to watch a conspecific push a elongated, stick-like tool through a vertical hole inside a Plexiglas wall in order to probe for a food reward (peanut), which was visible but out of their direct reach. Following this, three animals, which previously failed to retrieve the reward succeeded in doing so.
Although, due to their strong beak curvature, it is technically almost impossible for the kea to hold the stick in allignment with their visual field these birds succeded to insert the tool into the appropriate hole.

Thereafter, the same animals were presented with another apparatus in which two small coloured boxed were presented next to each other behind a Plexiglas wall in various distances to a small hole in the middle of the wall.
Only one of the two boxes contained a food reward (before testing started, the animals were shown which color of box contained the peanut). To reach the desired food the kea not only had to insert the stick-tool through the small opening but also needed to to aim at the baited box while avoiding the empty one. The results quickly showed that the kea were not simply waving the tool about inside the opening until a reward appeared but used the tool as a functional extension of their beaks, aiming the distal end of the tool at the desired goal object.

As Dr. Gajdon, the manager of the kea lab in Vienna, explains, this is astonishing since kea, which are breeding in burrows do not use stick-like matterials during nest construction and therefore lack an ecological predisposition for doing so.

Source: ‘Navigating a tool end in a specific direction: stick tool use in kea (Nestor notabilis)’, Alice Auersperg, Gyula K. Gajdon, Ludwig Huber, Biology Letters, June 2011