Annette Fayet was scanning a colony of Atlantic puffins off the coast of Wales when something caught her eye. A puffin, gently bobbing on the sea, held a stick in its orange-black bill. Then, the seabird used it to scratch its back.
“I was surprised and excited,” says Fayet, an ecologist at the University of Oxford who studies puffin migration. Puffins (Fratercula arctica) had never been seen using tools. In fact, no seabird had.
Fayet recorded the unusual behavior in her notebook, but it would take four more years before she got photographic evidence. In 2018 on Grimsey Island in Iceland, one of her motion-sensitive camera captured a puffin snatching a stick from the ground and using it to scratch its chest feathers.
Those observations, described December 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represent the only known example of a bird in the wild using a tool to scratch itself.
Scientists have long known that some birds use tools, mostly to extract food. Stick-wielding crows wow biologists with their ingenuity (SN: 9/14/16), some parrots grind down seashells with pebbles and Egyptian vultures can crack ostrich eggs with rocks. But seabirds, which tend to have smaller brains, were written off as prospective tool users, Fayet says. The puffin discovery suggests that tool use in birds may be more widespread and varied than previously thought, she and her colleagues say.
“I’m not surprised that seabirds can use tools,” says Corina Logan, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who wasn’t involved in the study. She says so many creatures’ cognitive abilities remain undiscovered because detecting them takes so much time and energy.
Despite the small sample size, Logan says she’s convinced puffins can use tools in part because the behavior was seen in two populations four years and 1,700 kilometers apart. Most tool use in birds revolves around eating, but this study “expands our predictions about which species engage in [tool use] and why they might need or want to do so.”
The puffins might be using sticks to flick ticks, a common puffin parasite, from their plumage, Fayet and her colleagues suggest. Summer 2018 in Iceland, when the behavior was caught on video, was an especially bad tick season.