We have just published a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (available open access here) discussing two observations of puffins using sticks to scratch. I made the first observation on Skomer (Wales) when I was doing fieldwork for my PhD in 2012. The second observation was recorded by a camera trap I set up on Grimsey Island (Iceland) in 2018 (you can watch it here). These observations qualify as animal tool use – a behaviour which is rare in animals and usually restricted to animals thought to have high cognition, like chimpanzees or crows.
Our observations are important for three reasons, which is why we decided to publish them. First, they show that the avian tool-use repertoire is wider than previously thought and is not limited to foraging behaviour. Indeed, to date most avian tool use is related to feeding, for example using tools to extract food from cavities, like New Caledonian crows and woodpecker finches do. Here our puffins scratched their body with a stick, which falls into the body care-related tool use. This is only the second body-care behaviour observed in wild birds, the first being anting (birds rubbing ants on their plumage, presumably for the antiparasitic property of formic acid). To date the only birds observed scratching with sticks were captive parrots (but we suspect wild parrots do it too but just haven’t been observed doing it yet).
Second, our findings expand the taxonomic breadth of tool use to seabirds, showing that tool use is more widespread than previously thought. Most observations of tool use in birds have indeed been in the Passeriforme order (passerines). Puffins belong to the Charadriiforme order.
Finally, our discovery also suggests that seabirds’ physical cognition may have been underestimated. The propensity for tool use is usually linked with cognitive abilities. While birds like crows are usually thought to be “intelligent”, seabirds have usually not been described as such (crows have a large relative brain size, unlike seabirds). However, seabirds have to solve complex tasks all the time in their daily lives, from finding food in a patchy and unpredictable environment, to navigating long distances across open oceans and making complex decisions about optimising offspring provisionning with their own and their partner’s feeding. This requires the ability to learn, to memorise, to plan, and to show some behavioural flexibility. Therefore, we think that it would not be surprising if we had underestimated seabirds’ cognitive abilities all along.
I published this paper with my co-authors Erpur Hansen, my Icelandic colleague who was helping me out in the field on Grimsey, and Dora Biro, a Professor at the University of Oxford specialising on animal tool use and collective behaviour.
Fayet AL, Hansen ES & Biro D (2019) Evidence of tool use in a seabird. PNAS https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1918060117