December 2021

Vol. 49, No. 6

Tool Use by Atlantic Puffins?

Jeffrey Boone Miller

Atlantic Puffin. Photograph by Marsha Salett.

Along the New England coast, any sighting of an Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) is likely to bring a smile to even the most weary observer. The reestablishment of nesting populations on several islands off the Maine coast has been a conservation success story (Davis 1992), so birders in our area have a chance to observe their behavior. Puffins can dig burrows for their nests and catch their prey underwater, but is it possible that puffins have the capability to use tools? One group of researchers says yes (Fayet et al. 2020a, 2020b), but others have questioned the strength of the evidence and whether it is sufficient to support this conclusion (Auersperg et al. 2020; Farrar 2020; Sándor and Miklósi 2020; Sándor et al. 2021). Here is the story so far.

In January 2020, Fayet et al. (2020a) published a brief report describing two observations of Atlantic Puffins that the authors interpreted as “evidence of true tool use.” The first observation, on June 18, 2014, was of a puffin “sitting on the sea” near Skomer Island, Wales, that was observed through a spotting scope “holding a wooden stick in its bill and using it to scratch its back for ∼5 s.” The second observation, on July 13, 2018, was from Grimsey Island, Iceland, and was recorded by an automatic camera. The authors describe the action in the ten-second video as “an adult puffin picks up a wooden stick from the ground then uses it to scratch its chest feathers.” The video, titled Movie S1, can be found at .

The authors interpreted their observations as “two instances of puffins using a stick as a tool for body care” and noted that, in the wild, only primates and elephants had previously been observed scratching with a tool. Tool use by wild animals is rarely observed even by species that regularly use tools in captivity. So, if the authors are correct, these observations would be noteworthy both for rarity and for adding a new suborder—seabirds—to the list of birds known to use tools.

Based on earlier work (Bentley-Condit and Smith 2010; Shumaker et al. 2011), Fayet et al. (2020a) defined tool use as the “direct manipulation of a detached object toward a specific part of the environment…with a specific goal.” A familiar example in our area is when gulls drop shellfish on hard surfaces to crack them open for eating. Herons using bait to attract prey fish is another example (Davis and Zickefoose 1998). For the two puffin observations, the birds certainly used a detached object—the stick—to contact a specific part of the environment—the birds’ plumage—but what was the specific goal? When discussing possible goals, the authors dismissed collection of nesting material, communication, foraging, and investigation of a novel object. Instead, the authors favored the possibility that the birds were “most likely engaged in body care,” and they further speculated, without additional evidence, that the stick was used to “dislodge parasites or relieve an itch.”

It did not take long for others to question whether Fayet et al. (2020a) had provided sufficient evidence to support tool use by puffins. First, a group of scientists well known for their work in animal tool use published a critique in the same journal suggesting that, “Likely and more parsimonious explanations for the object behavior are that the bird simply accidentally touched its plumage with the stick while bringing it toward its breast during a breeding display or was simply trying to scratch itself while still holding the object.” (Auersperg et al. 2020) This group also pointed out that there had been an earlier single observation of a seabird—a Double-crested Cormorant—using a feather as a tool for preening (Meyerriecks 1972). Farrar (2020) also suggested that the observations had occurred by chance and were not a convincing example of tool use.

In response, Fayet et al. (2020b) published a reply that accompanied the Auersperg et al. critique. Fayet et al. (2020b) acknowledged the previous cormorant report and agreed that further investigation of puffin tool use was necessary. However, they also pointed out that extensive investigation had not found puffins using sticks in nest building or courtship at their study sites. They also argued that the stick was used in a “precise and delicate” manner to touch the feathers only. Fayet et al. also wrote a point-by-point rebuttal to the Farrar (2020) critique, which is attached to the Farrar paper.

Next to appear was a paper that examined the puffin tool use paper in detail and used it as an example to set standards for reporting “a rare behavior or event that has been observed either once or few times.” (Sándor and Miklósi 2020) These authors proposed standards for describing behavior, as well as for analyzing function, cognition, and evolutionary considerations, and for presenting hypotheses. Based on these standards, the Fayet et al. (2020a) paper could likely have been improved, for example, by comparing the behavior of the puffin they recorded with other videos of puffins scratching or preening without sticks. Sándor and Miklósi (2020) did just that by viewing dozens of videos of puffins scratching without sticks, and they concluded that the actions they analyzed were in “all important aspects very different” from that reported as “scratching” by Fayet et al (2020a). It would be useful to know if other observers, including Fayet et al., would agree with this conclusion.

Finally, Sándor et al. (2021) recruited panels of professional ethologists and ornithologists, as well as laypeople, and asked each participant (n=408) to view the puffin video of Fayet et al. (2020a) alongside additional videos of puffin behavior, and then fill out a questionnaire about how to interpret the behavior. All groups showed similar uncertainty about how to interpret the video—there was no consensus among either experts or nonprofessionals about whether the stick was used for scratching or for some other reason. The authors point out that an important limitation of their study was that even the experts had not been extensively trained specifically in puffin behavior.

So, as it now stands, different researchers have come to opposite conclusions about the purpose of the puffin behavior reported by Fayet et al. (2020a) and whether it meets the criteria for tool use. Those on both sides of the debate have advanced reasonable arguments for their case, but the debate will no doubt continue until further observations are made. In the meantime, if you are fortunate enough to happen upon an Atlantic Puffin with a stick in its beak, pay close attention. Your observation could settle the issue.


  • Auersperg, A., R. Schwing, B. Mioduszewska, M. O’Hara, and L. Huber. 2020. Do puffins use tools? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America ١١٧ (22):11859.
  • Bentley-Condit, V. and E. O. Smith. 2010. Animal tool use: Current definitions and an updated comprehensive catalog. Behaviour 147:185–221.
  • Davis, W. E. Jr. 1992. About the Cover: Atlantic Puffin. Bird Observer 20 (3):172–173.
  • Davis, W. E. Jr. and J. Zickefoose. 1998. Bait-fishing by Birds: A Fascinating Example of Tool Use. Bird Observer 26 (3):139–143.
  • Farrar, B. G. (2020). Evidence of tool use in a seabird? PsyArXiv Preprints Accessed September 19, 2021.
  • Fayet, A. L., E. S. Hansen, and D. Biro. 2020a. Evidence of tool use in a seabird. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,117 (3):1277–1279.
  • Fayet, A. L., E. S. Hansen, and D. Biro. 2020b. Reply to Auersperg et al.: Puffin tool use is no fluke. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,117 (22):11860–11861.
  • Meyerriecks, A. J. 1972. Tool-using by a double-crested cormorant. Wilson Bulletin 84:482–483.
  • Sándor, K., and Á Miklósi. 2020. How to Report Anecdotal Observations? A New Approach Based on a Lesson From “Puffin Tool Use.” Frontiers in Psychology 11:555487. Accessed September 19, 2021.
  • Sándor, K., B. Könnyű, and Á Miklósi. 2021. Uncertainty in experts’ judgments exposes the vulnerability of research reporting anecdotes on animals’ cognitive abilities. Scientific Reports 11:16255. Accessed September 19, 2021.
  • Shumaker, R. W., K. R. Walkup, and B. B. Beck. 2011. Animal Tool Behavior: The Use and Manufacture of Tools by Animals. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Jeffrey Boone Miller is a professor of neurology and physiology at the Boston University School of Medicine, a member of the Board of Tutors in Biochemical Sciences at Harvard University, and an associate editor of Bird Observer. He thanks Dr. Kathleen Buckley for valuable discussions.

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