Jaw-dropping video showing a crow's intelligence


Watch video, and then read article

Many animals use tools, but their understanding of physical forces or causal relations is unclear (1, 2). Primates are considered the most versatile and complex tool users, but observations of New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) (3-5) raise the possibility that these birds may rival nonhuman primates in tool-related cognitive capabilities.

We report here an experiment inspired by the observation that a captive female spontaneously bent a piece of straight wire into a hook and successfully used it to lift a bucket containing food from a vertical pipe (Fig. 1A). This occurred on the fifth trial of an experiment in which the crows had to choose between a hooked and a straight wire and only after the hooked wire had been removed by the other subject (a male). The animals had prior experience with the apparatus, but their only previous experience with pliant material was 1 hour of free manipulation with flexible pipe-cleaners a year before this experiment, and they were not familiar with wire (6).
Fig. 1. Bending wire into hooks by a captive New Caledonian crow. (A) The female New Caledonian crow extracting the bucket containing meat using a piece of wire she had just bent. This is a photo taken after the experiment was completed, but the hook and posture depicted are typical of experimental trials. (B) Outline tracings of all the bent wires, with the end inserted into the tube facing right. Numbers refer to trial number. The wire bent in trial 8 was not successfully used to retrieve the bucket (it was dropped into the tube). Because of experimenter error, the wire in trial 10 was 2 cm longer than the wire in the other trials. Scale bar, 5 cm. [View Larger Version of this Image (54K GIF file)]

To investigate the importance of this observation, we conducted several new trials in which we placed a single straight piece of garden wire (0.8 mm in diameter, 90 mm long) on top of the tube and did not intervene until either of the birds obtained the food (a valid trial) or dropped the wire irretrievably into the tube (an invalid trial).

Out of 10 valid trials (interspersed with seven invalid ones), the female bent the wire and used it to retrieve the food nine times, and the male retrieved the food once with the straight wire (7). To bend the wire, she first wedged one end of it in sticky tape (available around the bottom of the tube and the side of the plastic tray containing the apparatus) or held it in her feet at a location 3 m from the food, where there was no tape. She then pulled the other end orthogonally with her beak (see Movie S1), resulting in a bend with an angle of 74 ± 30° (mean ± SE) (see Fig. 1B for individual tool shapes). She started to bend the wire 35 ± 8 s after the start of each trial and used the resulting hook 6 ± 2 s later. In all cases but one, she tried with the straight wire (for 15 ± 4 s) before starting to make the hook. In all valid trials, the birds retrieved the food within 2 min.

Thus, at least one of our birds is capable of novel tool modification for a specific task. In the wild, New Caledonian crows make at least two sorts of hook tools using distinct techniques (3, 4), but the method used by our female crow is different from those previously reported and would be unlikely to be effective with natural materials. She had little exposure to and no prior training with pliant material, and we have never observed her to perform similar actions with either pliant or nonpliant objects. The behavior probably has a developmental history that includes experience with objects in their environment (just as infant humans learn about everyday physics from their manipulative experience), but she had no model to imitate and, to our knowledge, no opportunity for hook-making to emerge by chance shaping or reinforcement of randomly generated behavior. She had seen and used supplied wire hooks before but had not seen the process of bending.

Purposeful modification of objects by animals for use as tools, without extensive prior experience, is almost unknown. In experiments by Povinelli [experiments 24 to 26 in (2)], chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) repeatedly failed to unbend piping and insert it through a hole to obtain an apple, unless they received explicit coaching. Further experiments [exp. 27 in (2)] (8) have shown a similar lack of deliberate, specific tool modification in primates. There are, however, numerous suggestive field observations (9) and one report of a male capuchin monkey (Cebus apella) unbending a piece of wire to obtain honey (10).

Our finding, in a species so distantly related to humans and lacking symbolic language, raises numerous questions about the kinds of understanding of “folk physics” and causality available to nonhumans, the conditions for these abilities to evolve, and their associated neural adaptations. Comparisons between New Caledonian crows and their relatives, as well as between other cognitively exceptional birds and their relatives (11), offer a unique natural experiment to examine hypotheses about the ecological and neural preconditions for complex cognition to evolve. It is not yet known if New Caledonian crows are also exceptional in cognitively demanding tasks not involving tools.

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Very cool story, but I’m pretty sure it’s old. I remember reading about this many months ago. Still totally awesome though.

Ravens are Kings among birds. Up in Utah among my group they’re famous for their elaborate complex calls that border on having a vocabulary and perceptive flying patterns; its clear they’re aware of what’s going on below them and they seem to chat it up about it. Though i can’t remember the personal anecedote about them i was going to relate :/. So much for having a memory, i will miss thee. Anyway though very different from human beings its clear their behaviors are not soley (er, sp? sleepy) directed by mechanical, blind instinct.

A parliament of Ravens
A murder of Crows

These animals learn and they pass the lessons on, no doubt.

In Poland, you bend down as if to pick up something, within throwing distance of a crow or even flock of crows, and they’ll bail. But they won’t do it if they’ve been quiet and you haven’t looked their way. If you did the “pick it up” bit without looking and the crow hadn’t moved, but then you looked, THEN it will fly away.

They’re smart, and that’s S-M-A-R-T, so already a better VP than Dan Quayle.

A parliament of Rooks.
An unkindness of Ravens.

I recall seeing a video of an intelligence test for ravens kind of like the one above. They had a bucket of seed dangling from a string tied to a branch, and had left some wire and other things around to see if the raven would try to make use of the tools.

Bird untied the knot.

Smart bird.

I’ve seen something on to this myself. There was some seed placed in a closed container and the crow had to touch with its beak symbols on a touch-screen in a particular order to open the container. It had to do this over a period of time and it easily learned the code. It even adapted quickly when they started changing the code.

I, for one, welcome our new avian overlords.

That’s corvine, or it could as well be referring to doves, the most stupid of birds.

Are they? That’s a surprise.

Are they? That’s a surprise.[/quote]

Especially considering 9 out of 10 magicians teach doves to perform in their magic tricks.

Remember: choosy magicians chose doves.

A parliament of Rooks.
An unkindness of Ravens.[/quote]

A bucket of chicken.


Being easily trainable for rudimentary tasks doesn’t necessarily equate to being smart.

Are they? That’s a surprise.[/quote]
I don’t know, maybe they’re just lazy and lack mobility, but 90% of the birds that have smacked into the windshield of my train have been doves. Don’t know what kind of dove, though.

Flat, I’d guess.

I remember now :)

The ravens were bombarding yearlings - with sticks. Over and over. It was clearly a game for them.

Smart or not, crows are noisy, scavenging, annoying beasts. I’m surrounded by the damn things here, with nests in the huge maple and oak trees across the street from me and one in the big pine tree in my back yard. They also transit from said front trees to the back tree right down my driveway, letting 'er fly the whole fucking way, each and every day. So unless crow smarts enable these guys to cococt makeshift bulletproof vests out of twigs, they’re not going to see summer.

We have a protected rookery on the hill near our house, so we see a buttload of crows every day. In the evening, around sunset, hundreds of them take off and fly towards the north; the whole exodus takes about twenty minutes or so. It’s pretty amazing. Apparently the real resident crows leave during the day, and squatters come and hang out in their nests. Then in the evening, the resident crows come back and chase all the squatters away.

Ouch. That can’t be good for property values on your block.