How does a puffin scratch an itch? With a stick, it turns out

Long known as geniuses of the animal kingdom, wild primates and elephants have been known to use tools such as sticks and rocks.

But for the first time, scientists have observed tool use in a seabird — thanks to the humble puffin.

Two different Atlantic puffins, one in Wales and the other 1,700 kilometres away in Iceland, have been spotted at their breeding colonies using sticks to seemingly get at their itchy bits.

The findings by researchers from the University of Oxford and the South Iceland Nature Research Centre are recently outlined in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We describe a previously unknown tool-use behavior for wild birds, so far only documented in the wild in primates and elephants,” the authors note, adding, “Seabirds’ physical cognition may have been underestimated.”

The puffins were observed on Skomer Island, Wales and Grimsey Island, Iceland.

“My camera traps to study puffin diet didn’t work that well for their intended purpose, but one picked up another interesting behaviour,” Oxford’s Annette Fayet posted on Twitter.

It was in Iceland where incredible video of the tool use was captured.

Very few animal species use tools and then they do, they tend to be land animals and it usually relates to feeding.

Chimps will also use tools to do things like groom or scratch or wipe themselves, according to biologists. Even captive parrots have been reported using sticks to scratch.

But generally, the only time birds have used tools for “physical maintenance,” it was to do what’s called “anting” — place ants on their feathers.

They do that either for food or to get the insects to secrete chemicals on them to ward off other insects or diseases.

But now researchers have seen seabird using a stick for something novel.

Here we see timelapse of how the puffin picked up a stick, held it, scratched its chest and left the stick on the ground.

More study is needed, not just on puffins, but other bird species, according to the researchers.

“Seabirds’ cognitive capacities may have been considerably underestimated,” the authors concluded. “The fact that to date the only other birds seen scratching with a stick are parrots, prolific tool users and problem solvers, supports this hypothesis.”

So seabirds are not so bird-brained after all.

Photos PNAS

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