Bruce is a parrot with a broken beak. So he invented a tool. - petsitterbank

Bruce is a parrot with a broken beak. So he invented a tool.

Many animals are known to use tools, but a bird named Bruce may be one of the most ingenious non-human tool inventors out there: he’s a handicapped parrot who designed and uses his own prosthetic beak.

Bruce is a Kea, a species of parrot found only in New Zealand. He’s about 9 years old, and when wildlife researchers found him as a baby, he was missing his upper beak, likely because he was trapped in a trap designed for rats and other invasive mammals the country was trying to eliminate. This is a serious handicap, as kea use their dramatically long and curved upper beaks to preen their feathers to get rid of parasites and remove dirt and grime.

But Bruce found a solution: He taught himself to pick up just the right size pebbles, hold them between his tongue and lower beak, and comb the tip of the rock through his feathers. Other animals use tools, but Bruce’s invention of his own prosthesis is unique.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports on Friday. Studies of animal behavior are tricky—researchers must make careful, objective observations and always be wary of bias caused by humanization or erroneously attributing human characteristics to animals.

“The main criticism we received prior to publication was, ‘Well, that activity with the pebbles might just have been a fluke — you saw him having a pebble in his mouth by chance,'” said Amalia PM Bastos, an animal cognition researcher at the University of Auckland and lead author of the study. “But no. This has been repeated many times. He drops the pebble, he goes and picks it up. He wants that pebble. Unless he’s cleaning himself, he’s not picking up a rock for anything else.”

Dorothy M. Fragaszy, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Georgia who has published extensively on animal behavior but was unfamiliar with Bruce’s exploits, hailed the study as a model for studying tool use in animals.

“The careful analyzes of the behavior in this report provide strong inferences that the behavior is flexible, intentional, and an independent discovery by that individual,” she said.

The researchers set up careful rules.

First, they discovered that Bruce wasn’t playing with pebbles by accident: when he picked up a pebble, nine times out of ten he used it to clean. If he dropped a pebble, 95 percent of the time he would either retrieve it or pick up another one on top of it and then continue cleaning. He consistently picked up pebbles of the same size rather than randomly sampling pebbles.

None of the other kea in its vicinity used pebbles for preening, and when other birds manipulated rocks, they picked up pebbles of random sizes. Bruce’s intentions were clear.

“Bruce hasn’t seen anyone do that,” Ms. Bastos said. “He just made it up himself, which is pretty cool. We were lucky enough to observe this. We can learn a lot by paying a little more attention to what animals are doing, both in the wild and in captivity.”

Kea are generally quite intelligent, but Ms. Bastos said that Bruce is significantly smarter than other birds and can be trained very easily in fairly complex tasks, in addition to developing his own ideas. Ms Bastos said she was sometimes asked why she didn’t provide Bruce with a prosthetic beak.

“He doesn’t need one,” she always replies. “He can handle his own.”

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