The research reported here was designed to study the individual peculiarities of birds in solving a problem. Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis and siskins C. spinus were tested with the string-pulling task: sitting on a perch from which a small food container is suspended by a string the test bird had to lift the container, using the bill to pull the string stepwise up and a foot to hold it, and repeat that until they could reach the food. Fifty-two goldfinches and 29 siskins raised under controlled conditions were tested individually. Three groups became apparent: ‘inventors’ (23% of goldfinches; 62% of siskins) solved the problem by themselves; ‘imitators’ (25% of goldfinches; 10% of siskins) succeeded after seeing a performing conspecific; ‘duffers’ (52% of goldfinches, 28% of siskins) did not succeed either way. The species – but not the sexes – differed significantly in string-pulling ability. The results of our experiments indicate that string pulling is an acquired combination of innate behaviour elements. An individual's string-pulling competence may depend on prior experience of handling branchlets, on trial-and-error learning and on social learning (emulation). However, some individuals succeeded without these facilitating factors, while others did not succeed at all despite all of them present. Although functionally and motivationally related to feeding, the learned string pulling is often shown as a playful activity without an obvious reward.