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Juvenile Brown-headed Nuthatches use tools in the wild

Brown-headed Nuthatch photo by William Bulmer
Brown-headed Nuthatch photo by William Bulmer

Tool use has been documented in more than 270 species of birds in 33 families, mostly in wild or captive adult birds. The few records of juveniles using tools involve only captive species — Woodpecker Finch and New Caldonian Crow.

Recently, scientists from the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy in Tallahassee, Florida, reported what they say are “the first observations of tool usage by juvenile birds in the wild.” In a paper in Southeastern Naturalist, Mary Mack Gray, Elliot W. Schunke, and James A. Cox describe five instances in which they saw juvenile Brown-headed Nuthatches using tools. The birds used pine needles, twigs, and a pine-bark scale to probe for food under bark scales and in a mass of pine needles stuck in the crotch of a limb.

At least two of the young birds seized prey that had been hidden: a caterpillar and a grub.

The birds using tools were only a few months post-hatching when the observations occurred, suggesting the behavior is probably innate. Only one instance of an adult using a tool was recorded during the same study, although past observations have also reported tool use by adults.

“The observations of multiple juveniles using novel tools soon after fledging coupled with adults using tools rarely during this period suggest the behavior is not associated with cultural transmission,” Mack Gray and her colleagues wrote.

Brown-headed Nuthatch is a pine specialist of the southeastern states and the Bahamas; it is declining throughout its range.


A version of this article appeared in “Birding Briefs” in the June 2017 issue of BirdWatching.


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