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Goffin’s Cockatoo Invents and Modifies a Tool – a Parrot “First”

Goffin’s CockatooHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  A Goffin’s Cockatoo living at the Vienna University stunned researchers by exhibiting behaviors never before seen in any parrot species.  The bird, known as Figaro, went far beyond “mere” tool use.  When confronted with an out-of-reach treat, he first searched for a stick to use, and then modified the stick so as to better suit it for his purposes.  Figaro’s accomplishments are especially surprising because he had not been trained in any way, nor had he observed other tool-using birds.  He seems to have “envisioned” a concept and acted upon it.  Please post your own “smart parrot” stories below.

Spontaneous and Unexpected Tool Use

Parrots are considered among the most intelligent of birds, but tool use has not been documented in their ranks.  True, the majestic Palm Cockatoo bangs wood against hollow trees in order to communicate (please see this article) and many species wedge nuts into crevices to ease the job of opening them, but advanced tool use seemed beyond their abilities. 

Figaro’s talents came to light purely by chance.  A researcher happened to be nearby when Figaro dropped a stone behind a metal cage divider.  Unable to reach the plaything with his feet, the enterprising cockatoo flew off and returned with a piece of bamboo.  He used the bamboo to push the stone within reach.

Intrigued, the researcher tempted Figaro with a nut and a stick that was not long enough to reach the treat.  Undaunted, the cockatoo used his powerful beak to remove a long wood splinter from the cage’s wooden floor, and then swept the nut within reach with the new tool. In time, Figaro made a variety of tools from the floor and a tree branch, modifying them to fit each situation and always succeeding in retrieving his rewards (please see video and photos of tools linked below).  

Another Goffin’s Cockatoo who watched Figaro perform his magic tried to imitate him when tested.  This bird did not succeed, but perhaps will improve in time. This unique situation may provide an interesting opportunity to study the evolution of learning abilities…I’ll post future updates.

Crows, Herons and other Avian Inventors

Crows, Ravens and their relatives (Family Corvidae) excel at fashioning and using tools.  In fact, it has been suggested that Ravens’ abilities in this area rival those of the Great Apes.  In Japan, I saw evidence of the intelligence of the local Carrion Crows, which not only use passing cars to break nuts but also seem to understand the functioning of traffic lights!  New Caledonian Crows have proven unbelievably inventive, going though several steps and a number of different tools in order to obtain a reward.  Please see articles linked below for more on these fascinating birds.

Night Heron with FishGreen Herons are quite adept at recognizing and using tools to improve their fishing success.  Wild individuals drop small sticks on the water’s surface to lure fish close enough for a strike, while those colonizing fish farms will do the same with trout chow and bread (please see video below).  I was once impressed by the behavior of a related species.  For quite some time, I fed fish to a wild Night Heron that lived near an outdoor exhibit under my care at the Bronx Zoo (please see photo).  The bird never failed to appear when I arrived, yet did not show up on my weekends, even though co-workers wore the same uniform and carried the same food bucket (studies show that Mockingbirds can recognize individual human faces…please see this article).

Goffin’s Cockatoos in the Wild and Captivity

Goffin’s Cockatoos are captive bred in large numbers but endangered in the wild.  Listed on CITES Appendix I, they are endemic to Indonesia’s Tanimbar Islands.  Introduced populations live on Tual Island (Indonesia) and in Singapore.  Please see the articles below for more on their natural history and captive care.

Want to brag about your bird’s intelligence?  Please post your stories below!

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.  Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly.

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio


Further Reading

Video and photos of Figaro’s tools

Goffin’s Cockatoo Care and Natural History

Video: Green Heron Using Bread as fishing bait

Japan’s Carrion Crows Understand Traffic Signals! 

New Caledonian Crow Tool Use 

Goffin’s Cockatoo image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Hecht1969
Night Heron with Fish image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Dori


  1. avatar

    sounds like the first stage leading to Planet of the Goffins

  2. avatar

    I can always count on you!!

  3. avatar

    My Red-Lored Amazon Splinters His Perches To Make Head Scratching Tools…He Has No Other Companions So He Did Not Learn This From AnOther Bird

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    Hello! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

  5. avatar

    Hi Leyla,

    Thanks very much for that interesting observation! I’ll refer to interested contacts, Best, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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