There’s never been an insult to convey a greater misconception than the phrase ‘bird-brained’, because our feathered friends routinely use their high levels of intelligence, and soar to surprising heights demanding admiration.
Take Bruce for example, the 8 year-old Alpine parrot from New Zealand. Bruce is missing the top half of his beak and is considered disabled, but that doesn’t stop him from doing all the things a normal parrot does.
He has adapted to use his tongue in place of the missing upper beak to lift tools, and, most notably, to grasp a pebble to clean dust and mites from between his feathers—something never before observed in the species.
Alpine Kea are the world’s only alpine-dwelling parrots, and they’ve been known to be ‘bird-brained’ in this new sense. They’re very pensive, and have even been shown to weigh up probabilities before making a decision.
Bruce was found at Arthur’s Pass on the South Island in 2013 when he was a juvenile. Scientists at the South Island wildlife hospital assume he lost his beak during an encounter with a pest trap.
Now housed at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, he was first observed using a pebble in lieu of his beak for preening purposes back in 2019, a behavior so extraordinary that a group of scientists set out to observe him.
They found that in 90% of instances where he grabbed a pebble, he used it to preen himself, which constitutes tool usage in animals. In 95% of instances when a pebble was dropped, he retrieved or replaced it to continue grooming himself, seriously ruling out the ‘fooling around behavior’ exhibited by crows.
Amalia Bastos had the fortune of observing this “big personality” for the research, and she spoke to The Guardian about the experience.
“Because Bruce’s behavior is consistent and repeated, it is regarded as intentional and innovative,” Bastos said. “It is Bruce’s own unique tool-use, and this is the first scientific observation of that.”
“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.”
The green and red birds have been documented to use sticks to clean themselves before, but lacking the dexterity the rest of his beak would have afforded him, Bruce has had to make do.