Something to crow about

Ok, it’s not so subtle today.  Why?  Well, because I’m really just writing about crows.  The rain over the past couple of days has limited my time for running, but while sitting in my office yesterday I was able to watch some crows flying over campus.

For some reason people don’t like crows very much.  Maybe it’s their dark, black color?  Maybe it’s their “caww”?  Either way, they are badly maligned.  The surprising thing for a lot of people is that crows are still songbirds.  They’re more related to a chickadee than to a hawk.  In fact, a chickadee shares more with a crow than it does with a flycatcher.  I’ll save that discussion for another time.  For now, I want to get back to the crow.  Cool birds.  Aside from the vocal variation that I’ve mentioned before, crows and their relatives tend to be good at problem-solving.  In some ways, that makes crows the ugly smart kid of the class.  No one wants to date them, but in the end, they get a better job!

There have been all sorts of studies showing how crows and their relatives (the Corvidae) fare at tasks like spatial memory, but the coolest of the studies actually relates to one of those things that used to be thought of as something that only humans did:  tool making and use.  New Caledonian Crows (ok, not the ones around here) have been shown to make tools from the fronds of plants in order to catch food.  Well, not only do they make tools, but they may tailor the manufacture of the tool for the particular job that they’re doing!  Now if that isn’t a smart bird, you have awfully high standards.  Additionally, these behaviors spread from crow to crow with rapid regularity, which means that these birds are highly social and interactive, as well.

One of the studies on these crows documents the use of these tools across New Caledonia and describes how the pattern of the tool itself changes in different habitats across the island, but in a way that doesn’t relate to anything about the availability of plants for building the tool.  Hunh?  It likely means that they’re changing and improving the design of the tool in different places.

Hunt, G.R. and R.D. Gray.  2003.  Diversification and cumulative evolution in New Caledonia crow tool manufacture. Proceedings of the Royal Society London B 270: 867-874.

Trial and error learning?  Sure.  That’s beside the point.  The cool thing is that the crows are able to manipulate something in their environment in novel ways to create a tool to help access food.  Not only can they do it in the first place, but they can remember how to do it (what works and what doesn’t work) and that behavior can spread across the population!!  Who says you have to be pretty when you can be smart (and actually get to eat)?!?!

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About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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2 Responses to Something to crow about

  1. northernnarratives says:

    Hello from Minnesota. I have also been watching the crows. They are intelligent. Of course, I think all birds are intelligent. I totally agree with your goal to encourage people to look at the natural world around them. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Judy

    • Hi there Judy. Thanks so much for your comments. I’m definitely with you on the intelligence of crows. All birds, though? Hmm…After looking an ostrich in the eye, I don’t feel too bad saying that I don’t think they’ll win any scholarships anytime soon. There’s really not much going on in there! 🙂

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