Bruce, a partially beak-less Kea parrot in New Zealand, is giving the term “bird-brained” new meaning.
The rare alpine parrot is wow-ing scientists for his uncanny adaptive behavior — by carefully sourcing pebbles and twigs that are perfectly designed to help the bird preen in lieu of a fully functioning beak.
“Because Bruce’s behavior is consistent and repeated, it is regarded as intentional and innovative,” said Amalia Bastos, Ph.D. student at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, whose report on Bruce was published this week in Scientific Reports. “It is Bruce’s own unique tool-use, and this is the first scientific observation of that.”
Bastos was drawn to Bruce after zookeepers at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch noticed the Kea’s unique habits, unlike any they’d observed, according to The Guardian. “We needed to show that he was doing this intentionally,” Bastos said.
Over nine days, her team observed that Bruce proceeded to preen 90% of the time he picked up a pebble; and in 95% of the time when Bruce dropped a pebble, he either retrieved or replaced with a new one — all of which indicates he was intentionally shopping around for the right tool to do the job. Furthermore, no other Kea around him were doing this.
The same sort of practice was seen while rooting for food. “He’ll pick up a piece of carrot and push it against a hard piece of metal or rock and use that to scrape with his lower bill, which again is a feeding behavior we haven’t seen in the other birds,” Bastos said. “It’s not tool use, but it is another interesting way he has adapted to his disability.”
It’s not the first noted report of pet parrots using outside tools for self-care, but it is rare in the wild, according to Aukland researchers, and even more so to see them do it independent of training.
“Kea do not regularly display tool use in the wild, so to have an individual innovate tool use in response to his disability shows great flexibility in their intelligence,” said Bastos. “They’re able to adapt and flexibly solve new problems as they emerge.”
Bruce was discovered as a juvenile in 2013, already missing the top portion of his beak, most likely due to injury from a pest trap, his caretakers believe.
The precocious bird now holds his own at the reserve. “He pushes the other birds around with his feet. He is doing quite well.”