Tool-Using Crows

Tool-Using Crows

The New Caledonian Crow out-performs some primates in resourcefulness


It's easy enough to make tools when you've got opposable thumbs. Work at it for a few millennia and you'll go from using rocks as hunting weapons to playing Call of Duty on an incredible machine that you don't even fully understand. We've come pretty far as primates. We owe a lot to our thumbs. That's why it's all the more incredible when we notice animals without proper hands using and adapting tools like we do. Birds, no less.

The New Caledonian Crow is one of the only species of non-primate animal to have a complex system for making and using tools. They like to eat insects, so they've found a way to fashion bug-loosening sticks from screw pine leaves. They hold the sticks in their beaks and probe at crevices to dig the bugs out from inside. And these aren't just any old twigs, either. They come in three distinct models: narrow, wide, and multi-stepped. They each have a wide handle and a narrow point, ergonomically designed for their specific purpose.

That's neat on its own, but what's really amazing is that these sticks are fashioned identically all across the crows' habitat. Researchers have found the tools all over the place, with subtle evolutions in design seen in the newer sticks. This implies that one individual crow invented the bug-digging tool and then taught other crows how to make it. The knowledge spread throughout the species by word of mouth, as it were. Not only can these guys fashion tools, but they can teach each other how to make them as well. That's better than some humans can do. 

Research has also shown that the New Caledonian Crow can figure out how to make tools out of materials it's never seen before. A 2002 study demonstrated a crow's ability to take a piece of wire and twist it into a hook in order to better get at a piece of food out of reach. This particular crow had never seen wire before, but still managed to figure out how to manipulate it to get what it wanted. The crow repeated the behavior when presented with new straight wire. The tool-making was deliberate and calculated despite the fact that no known materials were present. The study proved that the New Caledonian Crows are actually better at tool-making than chimpanzees. As far as problem-solving intelligence goes, these birds are closer to humans than monkeys are.