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Bird Watching Stories
(Go Back to Wild Bird Page Contents)
»  Aransas in the Fog:
Whooping Cranes
» No Barbeque this Summer 
» Barn Swallow "Mama"  
» Just How Does a Bird Eat Bees?  
» My Birdwatching Adventures in Costa Rica
 » Just Another Golden Eagle  
 » Four Birds in One Tree: 
A Few Days of Birdwatching in England
» Four Calling Birds??? 
» A Very Unique Cardinal 
» Narcissism or Territorial
Defense: Macho Cardinal
» The Last Companion Carolina Paroquet 
» The Ever-Popular Chickadee  
» Convergent Evolution: Meadowlark and Longclaw 
» Barrel Cactus Confrontation 
» Galahs Playing Around and Around and Around ...  
» Who Made Up This Stuff?
Bird Call Mnemonics
» Mesmerizing a Goldfinch 
» The Best Mimic?  
» Prairie Chickens and Woodcocks:
Missouri Ornithology
» Mob Mentality: Who is Really in Control of the Skies?
» The Owl Who Sat Down Beside Me 
» Meeting Hot Shot: The Toddler Peregrine Falcon  
» Seeing 'Sea Parrots'
in Alaska
 » A Rare and Unusual Bird 
Meeting Roger Tory Peterson
» Raven Showoffs 
» Reddish Egrets a nd Canopy Feeding 
 »  Robins and Worms 
Hear, See, Smell, or Feel?
» Hospital Halucinations 
» What Are You Doing Here? Scissortail Flycatcher 
» Wild Bird "Attacks": Just Misunderstandings? 
» Drunken Waxwings and an Unusual Hummingbird Feeder
 » Acorn Woodpecker Defending its Stash
» Why Woodpeckers Don't Get Headaches: Built in Shock Absorber 

By Lynne Page   Illustration by Sally Blanchard 

“Tool-Using by Parrots: The Palm Cockatoo and the Hyacinthine Macaw”, Paolo Bertagnoijo, Avicultural Magazine, Vol.100, no. 2, 1994, pp. 68-73.

Tool Use In The Wild 
Opening latches, using a bottle cap as a seed scoop. or simply playing with toys, our parrots constantly exhibit their dexterity in manipulating objects This skill adds to the charm and challenge of living with companion birds. It is hardly surprising to learn that parrots in the wild also manipulate objects and even make and use tools.
Of course, parrots aren’t the only birds to manipulate and use items in their environment. Every nest builder demonstrates the skill to some degree and a few, such as the weavers, are masters. Some water birds have been observed repeatedly dropping leaves onto the surface of moving streams, apparently as bait to bring fish within easy’ reach. But probably no other bird has the combination of strong, deft beak, dexterous feet and intelligence found in the parrot. 

While this brief article from the publication of the Avicultural Society of Britain focuses on the use of “tools” by Palm Cockatoos and Hyacinth Macaws, a few other examples of object manipulation are mentioned. One is the phenomenon of “bombing.” well known to every owner of a pet parrot. The author cites a report of wild Rose-Breasted Cockatoos dropping stones onto the iron roof of a country house. No mention is made of how this sounded to the occupants, but the birds seemed to be enjoying the noise. In a quieter version of bombing, Keas in New Zealand have been seen dropping small rocks off cliffs and watching them fall.

Palm cockatoos, when breeding, manipulate objects in several ways. The author of this article, along with other ornithologists, has observed that in the wild these wary cockatoos create lookout posts. “The first step, once an apparently suitable nesting hole has been located in a mature tree, is to select a few meters from it a couple of young trees some 10 cm (about 4 in.) in base diameter. After being quickly deprived of their branches, leaves and part of their bark, these small trees are truncated more or less at the level of the nest-hole. The two heavily’ pruned trees are then used as safe observation posts, to which the birds daily return for a number of weeks.” The author points out that supplying similar vertical perches might stimulate breeding in captive Palm Cockatoos. (Male Palm Cockatoos will also pound on these trees with a stick to communicate) 

When the selected nesting site appears safe, the male flies to a nearby branch and stamps his foot, apparently to declare his territory or to proclaim to the female that it is time to nest, The stamping is sometimes amplified by the use of a tool. The male may select a small branch, cut a suitable length and strip it of leaves. He then uses this stick, clenched in his foot, to beat a hollow branch. Because Palm Cockatoos build a nest of twigs inside the nest cavity, possibly this drum stick behavior grew out of the twig-collecting phase of nest building. (In passing, the author notes that on at least two occasions, captive Palm cockatoos have been seen eating mice, which they presumably caught and killed as the rodents investigated the aviaries.) 

Eating Techniques 
The core of the article describes observations of certain eating techniques of Palm’ Cockatoos and Hyacinth Macaws. The descriptions of the cockatoos are quoted from a book by a naturalist who observed the birds in 1857 on the Aru Islands. He watched the cockatoos crack exceedingly hard kanary nuts. A bird would notch the shell by sawing with its lower mandible. “This done, it takes hold of the nut with its foot and, biting off a piece of leaf, retains it in the deep notch of the upper mandible, and again seizing the nut, which is prevented from slipping by the elastic tissue of the leaf, fixes the edge of the lower mandible in the notch, and by a powerful nip breaks off a piece of the shell.” 

It had been suggested that this report might have been a misinterpretation, that perhaps the birds simply accidentally took hold of a piece of leaf when picking the nuts. This author, however, has observed similar behavior in his captive Hyacinth Macaws in his aviaries in Rome. (The pair was captured as adults.) When the birds are given particularly hard-shelled almonds or other nuts, they use a grass blade, leaf, or other vegetable matter much as we might use a dish towel in opening a tightly screwed lid. The grass is positioned where the lower beak acts on the shell, apparently keeping the beak from slipping on the hard shell. The author hypothesizes that a similar “technique would keep the mandible from slipping on the slippery stones of fruits known to be eaten by Hyacinths in the wild.” 

The author remarks that, despite the many Hyacinths in public and private collections, this observation had not been previously made or at least not reported. This demonstrates that much is to be learned from captive birds when they are kept in rich environments and carefully observed. 

 (I would also like to point out that the Avicultural Magazine is a good source of articles about keeping all types of birds. not just parrots, and is of particular interest to those who would like a British or European perspective on aviculture.) 

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