A puffin in Iceland and one in Wales were spotted using sticks to scratch an itch – a form of tool use that has never before been seen in wild birds. According to researchers, recording the behaviour at two breeding colonies 1,700km (1,050mi) apart suggests this type of tool use may be widespread among certain types of seabirds, whose “physical cognition may have been underestimated.”
An Atlantic puffin was filmed at its breeding colony on Grímsey Island in North Iceland picking up a stick in its beak and using it to scratch an itch. This incident was caught on camera some four years after an Atlantic puffin on Skomer Island in Wales was observed using a stick to scratch its back. To date, using a tool for scratching is a behaviour that has only been observed in primates and elephants.
“Our findings suggest that while this behaviour is rare it is not restricted to a single population,” the report, authored by Annette L. Fayet, Erpur Snær Hansen, and Dora Biro, reads.
As for what led to the behaviour, the report’s authors suggest the puffins could have been attempting to get rid of seabird ticks, which plague seabird colonies, as “the stick may have helped with scratching or dislodging them, perhaps more effectively than the beak.”
The researchers state their findings warrant further studies on seabird cognition and tool use among wild animals, which could ultimately help in “understanding the evolutionary history of our own species.”
The full report and videos of the Grímsey puffin are available on PNAS’s website.