New Study: Disabled Parrot Learns to Use Tools Like Human

Written by Austin S.
Published: September 19, 2021
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Keas are a type of parrot unique to New Zealand. They are one of few alpine parrot species and are also said to be one of the smartest birds on Earth. Kakapos are the parrot most closely related to the kea. Keas can solve logic puzzles and have the same level of intelligence as a four year old human. They have also been said to have the same cognitive abilities as many ape species. Called the “Clowns of the Alps”, keas wreak havoc on New Zealand natives by dive bombing cars, removing the lids of garbage cans, and even opening sliding glass doors.

Meet Bruce

One particular kea, Bruce, is making waves this week after a new study discusses his ingenious preening skills. He has learned how to overcome his disability and use pebbles to clean himself.

The study out of New Zealand takes a look at Bruce’s unique preening habits. However, Bruce is no ordinary kea, he has a missing upper beak. This is a severe handicap for a wild bird.

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In his nature sanctuary, Bruce has been showing off his intelligence. In fact, he has learned how to preen with pebbles. This type of behavior is called “self-care tooling”. Researchers study this type of behavior when an animal uses an inanimate object for their own care. In Bruce’s case, he has picked pebbles to preen with.

Normally, a kea parrot would use their beak to preen. They have characteristically long and curved beaks that are perfect for removing dirt from their feathers. Due to his lack of beak, Bruce has created his own solution.

The Study

In the study, researchers compared the instances that Bruce picked up a pebble to preen with, with the instances that he just randomly picked up a pebble. They found that 90% of the times Bruce chose a pebble, he ultimately used it as a self care tool.

But how did Bruce hold the pebble with a broken beak?

He held the pebble between his lower lip and tongue. This was another find researchers used to prove Bruce’s pebble obsession was intentional. Bruce only used pebbles of a certain size to preen with. These pebbles were easy to pick up, hold, and manipulate despite Bruce’s broken beak.

Other keas in his same environment would pick up pebbles of larger sizes, but never used them as a tool of any kind. Bruce’s pebble preening is unique to him, even within his own community.

Some skeptics argued that Bruce may have been picking up pebbles at random. However, the research used the following five facts to prove Bruce’s intentions:

  •  Over 90% of the times that Bruce picked up a pebble, he used it to preen.
  •  When Bruce dropped his preening pebble, he picked it up, and resumed preening 95% of the time.
  •  Bruce consistently picked pebbles of the same size to preen with. He also did not pick up other pebbles in his environment, only ones that met his tooling standards.
  • No other parrots in Bruce’s environment used pebbles to preen with. Bruce was unique in this aspect and could not have learned this action from a fellow kea.
  • No other parrots in his community picked up pebbles that were the same size as Bruce’s preening pebbles.


Because of his unique preening abilities, Bruce stands out in the kea community. However, this study shows more than just Bruce’s individual cognitive abilities. Due to the results of researcher’s observations of Bruce, they can conclude that self-caring and the innovation of tooling based on necessity is a deliberate action within some bird species.

Due to Bruce, we may be able to learn even more about parrot’s cognitive abilities and unique tooling characteristics.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Lost in Time/

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About the Author

Growing up in rural New England on a small scale farm gave me a lifelong passion for animals. I love learning about new wild animal species, habitats, animal evolutions, dogs, cats, and more. I've always been surrounded by pets and believe the best dog and best cat products are important to keeping our animals happy and healthy. It's my mission to help you learn more about wild animals, and how to care for your pets better with carefully reviewed products.

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