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Can great tits Parus major use tools?

Johnsson, Robin (2018) BIOM02 20172
Degree Projects in Biology
Popular Abstract
It has been reported from one field observation in Belgium that great tits can use conifer needles to extract larvae from bark crevices in trees. In a laboratory experiment I tested if great tits could use tools to extract mealworms in a similar way as in the field observation. I tested two different types of tools, sticks and hooks, in trials where the birds could extract a mealworm from a transparent plastic tube. Despite numerous training sessions, none of the 25 individuals learned to use any of the tools. This is in stark contrast to the abilities of some corvids and parrots that readily will learn to use tools in captivity. I believe that the acquisition of tool-use is difficult for great tits, but as they are good observational... (More)
It has been reported from one field observation in Belgium that great tits can use conifer needles to extract larvae from bark crevices in trees. In a laboratory experiment I tested if great tits could use tools to extract mealworms in a similar way as in the field observation. I tested two different types of tools, sticks and hooks, in trials where the birds could extract a mealworm from a transparent plastic tube. Despite numerous training sessions, none of the 25 individuals learned to use any of the tools. This is in stark contrast to the abilities of some corvids and parrots that readily will learn to use tools in captivity. I believe that the acquisition of tool-use is difficult for great tits, but as they are good observational learners, once such an ability has been learnt by a few individuals, it may spread to other individuals if the behavior is advantageous.

Tool-use has been described in the literature by several authors. For example, van Lawick-Goodall (1970) described it as “the use of an external object as a functional extension of mouth or beak, hand or claw, in the attainment of an immediate goal”.

There are many forms of tool-use among birds. For example, the Egyptian vulture throws stones at eggs to crack them open, the Galapagos woodpecker finch and the new Caledonian crow use sticks as probes in order to extract prey from crevices. Furthermore, tool-use has also been observed in laboratory experiments with corvids such as rooks, and parrots such as Goffin’s cockatoos and keas, that are not known to be tool-users in the wild.

There has been one single field observation from Belgium in 1984, where Duyck & Duyck reported that a great tit used a conifer needle as a probe in order to extract food from behind bark. To my knowledge, there has been no other reports about tool-use in great tits, thus I decided to investigate this further. I tested if great tits can learn to use tools in two different laboratory set-ups. In experiment 1, I tested if the birds could learn to use sticks as tools to extract a mealworm from a transparent plastic tube, and in experiment 2 I instead tested if they could learn to use a hook as a tool in a similar set-up.

None of the great tits succeeded in using a tool in either experiment 1 or experiment 2. However, the failure of great tits to learn to use tools was not due to lack of motivation or attempts, during the trials, the great tits always appeared to be eager to interact with the experimental set-up. For example, picking up the tools and tossing them, and pecking the tube.

In conclusion, no use of tools was observed in my great tits, and I argue that this behaviour might not exist in the population I investigated, although I cannot entirely rule out its existence. As some species of corvids and parrots appear to use the same type of tools as in my experiment, without previous training, I feel safe to conclude that tool-use is rare in great tits and probably hard for them to learn.



Master’s Degree Project in Animal Ecology, 30 credits
Department of Biology, Lund University

Advisor: Anders Brodin
Department of Biology, Lund University (Less)
Please use this url to cite or link to this publication:
author
Johnsson, Robin
supervisor
organization
course
BIOM02 20172
year
type
H2 - Master's Degree (Two Years)
subject
language
English
id
8940460
date added to LUP
2018-05-18 09:17:50
date last changed
2018-05-18 09:17:50
@misc{8940460,
  author       = {Johnsson, Robin},
  language     = {eng},
  note         = {Student Paper},
  title        = {Can great tits Parus major use tools?},
  year         = {2018},
}