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New Zealand parrot overcomes disability

bruce the kea preening himself with a pebble
bruce the kea preening himself with a pebble Image credit: theguardian.com

Meet Bruce, a disabled alpine parrot who has just gone viral who has found a genius method of keeping himself clean and looking good in time for mating season.

The little fella has worked out how to use pebbles to preen himself after being born with half a beak, a cleaning technique which has never been seen before in the animal kingdom.

Bruce scavenges for pebbles which will snuggly fit beneath the lower piece of his beak so he can give himself a decent scrub up.

He comes from a group of birds known as Kea which have a mischievous and in some cases, deadly reputation for stealing people’s passports, vandalising cars and killing sheep.

The bird, from New Zealand, is being protected at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch who have published Bruce’s rare grooming technique in the Scientific Reports journal.

Amalia Bastos, the report’s lead author and PhD student at the university’s School of Psychology, was impressed by Bruce’s way of overcoming his physical disability.

“Kea do not regularly display tool use in the wild, so to have an individual innovate tool use in response to his disability shows great flexibility in their intelligence,” Bastos said. “They’re able to adapt and flexibly solve new problems as they emerge.”

It is unknown how Bruce lost the top half of his beak, it was missing when he was found at Arthur’s Pass in 2013, but experts believe it was a result of being stuck in a pest trap.

He was taken to the South Island wildlife hospital which took him under their wing to give him the best chance in life.

Despite missing half a beak Bruce still knows how to stick up for himself, Bastos said “He pushes the other birds around with his feet. He is doing quite well.”

Researchers at Willowbank first noticed his pebble technique in late 2019 when they studied his method over the course of nine days.

During that period they recorded Bruce picking up pebbles with the intention to preen himself over 90 per cent of the time. In 95 per cent of cases when he dropped the stone he picked it up again before starting to groom himself.

“Because Bruce’s behaviour is consistent and repeated, it is regarded as intentional and innovative,” Bastos said. “It is Bruce’s own unique tool-use, and this is the first scientific observation of that.”

His keepers feed him on soft foods which are easier for him to eat, but when it comes to more solid meals Bruce has figured out a way to digest them.

“He’ll pick up a piece of carrot and push it against a hard piece of metal or rock and use that to scrape with his lower bill, which again is a feeding behaviour we haven’t seen in the other birds,” Bastos explained. “It’s not tool use but it is another interesting way he has adapted to his disability.”

It is thought the reason why Kea are so intelligent is because given their alpine environment they need to work out where their next meal is coming from, a second theory is linked to their highly sociable nature which requires complex interaction.

Kea are now an endangered species with only around 3,000 to 7,000 birds remaining in the country.