Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Crows are the first non-human animals we know of that employ tools to carry objects

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Corvidae birds have exceptionally large brains and are adept tool users, despite having no hands, let alone opposable thumbs. New Caledonian crows are no exception. Scientists have witnessed captive crows add another remarkable tool use to their already rich repertoire. Not one, but two crows were seen inserting sticks into objects to carry both at once. Some of these objects were too cumbersome to carry by beak alone, which is telling of the birds’ ingenuity.

Four such instances were observed by researchers at Lund University in Sweden, including the slipping of a wooden stick inside a metal nut or into the hole of a large wooden ball. In all instances, both stick (carrying tool) and the hooked objects were flown away by the crows, the researchers reported in the journal Animal Cognition.

Scientists are not sure at this point if this kind of behaviour is employed by other crows or Corvidae members such as ravens in the wild. It’s possible that one of the crows was the innovator, and the other captive individual observed, learned and mimicked this. It’s really difficult to tell at this point, judging from the actions of only two individuals. But if you were to ask me, I see no reason why wild crows aren’t doing this already — to carry food too big for their beaks, for instance, and stash it for later use. Indeed, a 2002 paper published in Science recounts how a New Caledonian crow named Betty took a piece of wire, bent it into a hook, then retrieved some food otherwise out of reach. Betty was also captive, though.

Tools and objects used for insert-and-transport tool use. a Experimental square wooden stick. Credit: Animal Cognition, Springer

Tools and objects used for insert-and-transport tool use. A is an experimental square wooden stick. Credit: Animal Cognition, Springer

Wild crows doing the same wouldn’t be surprising considering their track record. Time and time again, animal behaviorists have observed crows doing amazing things with their environments to solve new problems. Besides crafting hooks to reach food from sticks, crows can recognize people’s faces and understand water displacement on the same level as a child. That’s among other amazing things. Most people don’t hold crows in high esteem due to their allegedly repulsive appearance (I think they look very cool, actually), which is a shame. By judging crows by their cover, they might be missing out on a spectacle of nature. Me, you and crows aren’t all that different in many ways.


7 thoughts on “Crows are the first non-human animals we know of that employ tools to carry objects

  1. safetynet2razorwire

    I chose my fourth story apartment largely because of the Ash my balcony juts into the midst of. The local crows like it too. From my perch I regularly spot crows showing similar ingenuity. Several instances stand out. In one a crow, struggling to crack a nut. Its frustration was obvious – as was the light-bulb that went on over its head after taking stock of its resources. Dropping the nut from a tall power pole onto the sidewalk it crowed in victory – only to have the reward snatched by some thieving relative. Within minutes it was back with another precious packet of protein. This time it followed the nut down to
    make sure it got to the kernel first. Researching I found, somewhere on the net, mention of just such behaviour noted a continent away. I was impressed by the speed with which it solved both distinctly different problems: 1) the basic physics conundrum, and 2) the political one. The other incident was very similar to the one witnessed by these ornithologists. Our
    cul-de-sac exits via a pedestrian/bike path to a local mall. A stead but varied diet from the food fair keeps the crow family
    with rights to this block in all the fast food staples – occasionally the much coveted A&W fry or equally popular onion-ring. Rarely, however, both – and never in combination. For a crow to find three onion-rings and several fries within feet of each other must have been the stuff of crow legend. The bird gaving a furtive 360 of the area, spotting no immediate rivals, set about securing this trove. It faced a problem not unlike the riddle of how to ferry some grain, a hen, and a fox across the
    river. Flying aloft with an onion-ring would set the neighbourhood looking for more – losing our crow several rings and fries.
    It tried to pick up several rings at once – having brought them together. It paused. And then brought all the rings together –
    and tried to get its head through them. It then struck on the idea of using one of the fries in the same way as the Swedes describe. It struggled to find the right angle to hold the fry at – with the winning design being about a 45 degree angle that allowed it to nudge through all three holes (and then didn't throw off balance when flying away). And off he/she flew.

    That crows recognise individual human faces is well established – as is their ability to pass that description on through a crow community. That they learn from each other – and us is clear (the way their adoption of wire coat-hangers as their favourite nest-building material led, in Japan, to the phasing out of wire in favour of plastic … because of black-outs is a clear case for technological transfer). And as a youngster I'd watched and listened as all the neighbourhood crows from time to time convened in the giant Black Walnut overshadowing our house. There, under arching cathedral branches, a clear 'town-hall meeting' – with community concerns addressed. A justice system of sorts – with members chastised and made to perch apart – or sent off alone – shunned or in exile. Mom called it their 'parliament'. I think it was earthier and more grass-roots – hence 'town-hall'. It came as no surprise to learn that they speak at least three crow dialects: one to converse within close-knit family groups; another 'local' dialect; and a general universal tongue. And once you learn to recognise individuals and households it becomes apparent they have not only distinct personalities – but 'philosophies',
    too. Some project a sense of personal entitlement – others zen.

    Highly competitive among themselves they are still able to put aside differences to work a strategy or tactic and gain a victory over an adversary. Here is Vancouver we have the episode of the crows being attacked by an eagle in Stanley
    Park (that includes a square mile of wilderness adjacent to Canada's mostly densely populated – and N. America's most expensive housing per square foot). The eagle posed a clear and present danger to the local crows. Said crows, tired of fleeing for their lives and looking over their shoulders came up with a plan. A brilliant devious plan. Several of their most swift and agile fliers took to harassing the eagle – luring it into a single-minded focus on getting them. They led it a chase and then, almost letting it catch them swooped low to the ground. The eagle, coming in for the kill, was swatted from the
    air by a lion. The crows had led the distracted and incensed bald eagle to the then zoo area where, before an audience chorusing "OMG!" they flew low over the cat enclosure – catching the feline's eye – into which a much bigger meal flew.
    Score one for the crows!

    A crow just settled briefly in the tree – and I'm sure the look it gave me meant "Haven't you looked out here? Blue sky?
    Hot sun? Cool breeze? Shouldn't you be out enjoying it all? And, maybe, buying some onion rings or fries? Just sayin'"

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