Amazing Crows

Crows are smart. Really smart.

In the mid 1990's a biologist witnessed crows in their native forests in the south Pacific using twigs to make tools to reach larvae in accessible pieces of wood.

In 2002 Betty, a Caledonian crow, who had been kept in a research laboratory at Oxford University as part of a study into behavioural ecology, proved beyond doubt she could make rudimentary tools. Professor Alex Kacelnik and his colleagues said the experiments raised the possibility that Caledonian crows "may rival non-human primates in tool-related cognitive capabilities".

Here's what Betty did;

Betty was faced with a problem. A morsel of meat had been offered to her, but it was at the bottom of tube too deep for her to reach with her beak. Next to the tube was a 90mm straight length of 0.8mm thick garden wire. Betty knew what to do, she took the wire and tried to reach the meat.

When she couldn't retrieve the meat with the straight wire she simply bent the wire into a hook shape using either her beak and feet to manipulate the wire, or by wedging the wire into the tape holding the tube in place then bending with her beak.

Betty retrieved her meal 9 times out 10 in under 2 minutes.

Professor Kacelnik stated "Animals have the abilities they need for the circumstances in which they evolved, and we suspect that these animals are exceedingly clever". 

Everyone's favourite wildlife expert Dr David Attenborough also took a look at crows for BBC wildlife. In one Japanese city,  he explains, crows have developed a way of eating a food that they normally can't manage to get to. Some nuts are hard to crack so the crows try and drop them from a great height on to the concrete roads. This often works. However some of the nuts need more to be cracked and the crows have developed a really ingenious way of getting the job done. They drop the nuts in busy traffic and let the cars run over the nuts breaking them over. Now if this wasn't impressive enough the crows then managed to learn to use pedestrian crossings to their advantage. They wait for the lights to stop the traffic before retrieving their prize. 

In 2018 a task devised by scientists at the Max Planck institute for Ornithology in Seeweisen, and Oxford University, saw Caledonian crows combine 2 or 3 and even sometimes 4 non-functional elements into tools. A skill only previously ever seen in humans and great apes. 

Here's what happened;

The researchers presented eight Caledonian crows with a puzzle box that the crows had never seen before. A small amount of food was left inside behind a door that had a small gap to the bottom. Initially long sticks were left by the researchers and the crows very quickly were able to use these sticks to push the food out of another opening to the side of the box. 

All eight birds did this without difficulty. Impressive on its own really.

But then the researchers moved the food further back and left only sticks that needed to be 'combined' to reach the food. They could be 'combined' by inserting one stick into another as ends had being hollowed out to allow insertion of another stick.

The birds had not seen any demonstration of what they should do, and yet four of them solved the problem by inserting one stick into another to reach the food. The researchers shortened the sticks further and by the end of the study the crows were combining three sticks successfully and one of them, 'Mango', could organise four. Remarkable problem solving skills.

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