Disabled kea discovers how to use tools to clean himself

A major discovery has been made about a disabled kea at a Christchurch zoo and his ability to take charge of his self-care.

Scientists know kea can use tools, but they've never seen a kea use one quite like Bruce.

You've never met a bird like Bruce before - he's an innovator. He only has half of his beak, which means he'd never make it in the wild, but here at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve he's thriving.

"He's the sort of bird who acts first and thinks second but that's very much part of what makes a kea a kea," one helper says.

Bruce is a particularly crafty kea who takes care of himself. But it's how he does it that has scientists excited.

"We discovered that Bruce sort of uses a pebble tool to preen himself, and what that means is that he picks up little pebbles from the floor, puts it underneath his tongue and he sort of uses that," says University of Auckland PHD student Amalia Bastos.

"He slides the pebble and the lower bill across his feathers and cleans his feather that way."

This discovery that Bruce could overcome his disability now making him the subject of an Auckland University study proving just how intelligent kea are.

"It shows that they have some sort of flexible intelligence where they can come up with solutions to problems as and when they emerge and that's exactly what he's done," Bastos says.

"He has this disability and he's kind of come up with this very intelligent way to solve it."

Scientists believe the birds' incredible intelligence comes from their mountain environment.

"Because kea are alpine parrot they live in areas where food is very scarce and hard to come by and so they need to adapt to basically searching anywhere they can for food," a Willowbank worker says.

Or - in Bruce's case - to ensure he's preened, healthy and looking his best.