Humans are no longer considered to be the only species that can use grinding tools, after recent research has shown that certain parrots also possess this ability.
The surprising study, presented on Wednesday, December 16, in the journal Biology Letters, was conducted by experts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and at the University of York in England.
Researchers observed and filmed the behavior of 10 greater vasa parrots (scientifically known as Coracopsis vasa), which were being held in captivity at Lincolnshire Wildlife Park.
The aviaries where they had been kept had been strewn with several items, including small rocks, cockle shells, wood fragments and fruit pits.
By analyzing actions as they unfolded, and by reviewing them on film, it was determined that half of the avian creatures were employing tools such as date pits or tiny pebbles, so as to pulverize or break seashells.
This way, the highly inventive birds, usually found in Madagascar, could obtain their required dose of calcium, either as a powder, or as tiny pieces, which they could then ingest.
Researchers also discovered that the black-feathered birds sometimes used tools together, collaborating so as to achieve the vitamins they needed, given the fact that they aren’t normally able to maintain adequate levels of calcium in their skeleton for extended periods of time, unlike other species.
Even more interestingly, other birds were filmed as they snatched the helpful objects away from their original owners, in order to use them themselves.
This type of habit was more frequently displayed starting from March, until the middle of April, this period occurring right ahead of breeding season.
As researchers explain, one possible explanation for the fact that the parrots were more likely to seek calcium sources during that time is the importance of this element when it comes to the development of eggs.
Although initially they noticed that male greater vasa parrots were the ones more frequently engaged in breaking and grinding cockle shells, they soon realized that in fact the calcium actually reached females instead, because it was transmitted to them via regurgitated food, ahead of reproduction.
Parrots such as hyacinth macaws had been known to be able to crack nuts by turning small branches into wedges, while black palm cockatoos had been observed using nuts or branches against their nests, just like drumsticks, so as to attract potential mates.
Similarly, Kea parrots from New Zealand had also been witnessed devising and employing instruments, but solely in a laboratory setting.
In contrast, this new discovery involving greater vasa parrots has more far-reaching implications. According to study author Megan Lambert, PhD student at the University of York’s Department of Psychology, it’s for the first time that the use of grinding tools has been encountered among a different species aside from humans.
It’s unclear if the birds instinctively know how to derive nutrients by employing objects, or if they acquire this skill gradually, by learning it from other members of their flock or by testing different techniques on their own.
Researchers are also unsure if this behavior is also common among wild Greater vasa parrots as well, which is why they are planning to conduct a follow-up study so as to shed new light on these new questions that have emerged.
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