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If bird intelligence were like high school, corvids (crows, ravens, jays) would be the whiz kids. They make and use tools for multiple purposes: to get at food, to poke things, even to fight. An ornithologist once watched as a jay broke off a stick to fight a crow, then was disarmed and had the tables turned when the crow picked it up and chased the jay with it. One semi-feral crow, Canuck, was even involved in a police chase after removing evidence from a crime scene.

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Seabirds would probably be the class clowns. While gulls have become crafty food thieves and an occasional obstacle to outdoor eating, zoologists still don’t think they’re very smart: “Seabirds’ relative brain size is comparatively small and they are not generally described as possessing sophisticated cognitive abilities.” Of the group, puffins may be the most charismatic, with their brightly colored beaks (which change for mating season) and their widely acknowledged cuteness (they inspired and necessitated the creation of Star Wars‘ Porgs).

But last month, researchers published accounts of Atlantic puffins using sticks as tools to scratch themselves. It might not sound like much, but tool use is seen as a significant sign of animal intelligence (less than 1 percent of us are known to use them). While a single observance might be dismissed as outlying behavior, or an accident of chance, the paper recounts two observances of puffins using scratching sticks, four years and over 1,000 miles apart. The authors hypothesize that the sticks might have helped the puffins remove seabird ticks from their feathers. (Iceland witnessed a notably bad seabird tick season in 2018; the second observation was made there.)

So why hadn’t scientists seen this before? Puffins spend a majority of their time in the water gathering food, and observations are limited to when they’re on land, where they are often underground in burrows or on cliffs. Another possibility is that no one expects them to pick up a stick and start using it. “Chance favors the prepared mind,” said Pasteur; if you’re not looking for it, you might not see it.

Currently, the only other birds known to use sticks to scratch themselves are parrots, described as “prolific tool users and problem solvers” in the paper. Puffins now join them in a satisfied scratch by the sea.

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The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, Vol. 119, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 100-102
Wilson Ornithological Society