Tool use by cockatiels

To: "" <>
Subject: Tool use by cockatiels
From: "" <>
Date: Sun, 3 Nov 2019 06:02:51 +0000

A very interesting comment (appeared under a Guardian column by Richard Flanagan today) in which the commenter describes tool use by cockatiels


Living in UK. I had a pet cockatiel. Used to feed him seed mix that included white sunflower seeds - small, hard, smooth seeds. He could not crack them with his beak. If he bit down in them, they flipped out of his beak - no grip. Like biting a ping-pong ball!

He used to pick a white sunflower seed from his bowl, walk across my desk to me, place the seed on my cuff, roll the cuff back over the seed to make a 'swiss roll' of cloth around the seed, and bite through the cloth to crush the seed. Then he would open the 'swiss roll' and expose the crushed seeds and eat the kernel. He would do this repeatedly so my cuff would develop a dark stain of sunflower oil, and a gritty, chewed texture. I would sit there, distracted from my reading, mystified at his conduct.

I am embarrassed to admit it took me months to finally recognise this as 'tool use'. I was raised on old archaeology books where 'tools' were hard things like flint or bronze knives, hard work to make, and treasured. I had to unlearn my bias and see that easy, quickly made, casually thrown away tools made of soft things like cloth could be tools too.

I was the first person in earth to recognise tool use in cockatiels. His 'wrapping' of sunflower seeds was just the start - he used to wrap other things e.g. wrap a pen or key in paper and chew them. I think he saw these things as 'tough seeds' and he used his 'technology' of wrapping to try and make it easier to open them up. I believe he was employing a 'concept' of 'wrapping' to solve problems. If so, I call that a human-level of thinking.

He had a whole range of activities with sticks - e.g. using sticks to probe dark places. A probe is another example of tool-use. He used to probe spaces with a stick before putting his body into that place. This testing to see if a space was safe was the first stage before he would start chewing materials to make a nest. So, for him, 'nesting' was not 'instinctive' but a learning behaviour based on testing the environment with probes, building nests with tools, using problem-solving intelligence. Unless he was sure a space was safe, had tested it personally with his stick, he would not nest in it. That is not mindless 'instinct'. That is learning. And thinking. And feeling. And creating. My observations re-wrote our understanding of what 'nests' are.

I published my findings but no one took any interest. It frustrated me. I think if a chimpanzee did a fraction of what that cockatiel did in his every day play it would be headline news. But human-level intelligence in birds does not fit our bias the way clever primates do.

I could write a book about my discoveries. But there is no space here. My reason for mentioning it is to say, for goodness sake, value what you have before it is lost for ever.




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