Clever Crows Can Build More Than a Nest

We have all heard the expression “bird brain,” used to describe a rather silly action or lapse in good judgment. However, some birds have far more intelligence and ingenuity than for which they receive credit. It seems a murder of clever crows have blown the minds of a team of biologists by building tools to forage for food.

We knew that crows are the only birds that mate for life, remember good deeds done for them by humans, and protect each other with their lives. However, one clever species in particular has piqued the interest of researchers all over the world.

For over ten years, scientists observed and documented the New Caledonian crows constructing and using their crude utensils in various experiments. It was no surprise that these birds would do such tasks in artificial settings. However, they
wanted to see just how skillful these clever crows were in the wild.

Dr. Christian Rutz and Dr. Jolyon Troscianko, of Exeter University, discovered a way to answer that question. They coördinated a special field study on these clever crows.

“For a long time we thought this was something to do with the bird’s the
intelligence, but they are probably no more intelligent than other species. “But what I would say is that these crows have specifically evolved in terms of the
tools far greater than other birds.”

says Dr. Troscianko.

They fashioned tiny, lightweight cameras and attached them to the tails of ten of these clever crows. They then released them back into the wild and waited. After a few days, the cameras fell off, and the scientists were able to watch the fruit of their labor. It seems these scientists found a clever trick of their own to track the crows.

The footage of the crows, although a bit shaky and blurred, was remarkable. Upon the second sweep of the footage, picking it apart in slow motion, the biologists saw the answers they were seeking. Dr. Troscianko explains in detail the events they saw.

“The crows use a twig with a V-shape in it to make the tool. The bird snaps the stick in two places, just above the joint where the twig branches and just below it. That joint then forms a small hook at the end of a long, handle-like stick.

To shape the tool, the crows peel bark off the stick, remove any leaves attached, and will work the end to fashion it into a sharp hook.”

The whole process took about a minute to complete, which makes these crows even more amazing. In all the field research ever documented on the crows, this is the most thorough data ever collected.

Dr. Rutz garners another interesting observation from the footage. He noticed that on more than one occasion, the clever crows dropped the crude tool, and instead of proceeding with its task, paused to retrieve it from the ground.

“Crows really hate losing their tools, and will use all sorts of tricks to keep
them safe. We even observed them storing tools temporarily in tree holes, the same way a human would put a treasured pen into a pen holder.”

This clever behavior indicated to Rutz that the crows care about the utensils they craft. Rather than toss them aside like garbage, the crows prefer to hang on to the tools, perhaps for future use.

It is a common occurrence for mammals to fashion ways to get things done. However, this goes far beyond shuffling leaves with a stick or breaking a nutshell on a tree root. The minds of these clever crows seem as advanced as that of the chimps, according to other researchers in the field.

It seems that wonders never end in the animal kingdom. Therefore, the next time your friend reels you in to some ‘bird-brained’ plan, first decide if it is not in fact the New Caledonian brand.

[AP Photo/Pamela Hassell]