Crows Continue to Be Terrifyingly Intelligent

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Photo: Don Johnston

About 2,000 miles east of Australia is collection of islands called New Caledonia. The French territory is astonishingly beautiful, but the most astonishing thing about it has got to be the crows. With their beguiling smarts, New Caledonian crows are the valedictorians of the avian world (which is saying a lot, since birds have neuron counts on par with apes). New Caledonians can solve certain logic puzzles as well as 7-year-olds do, construct their own tools, and they’ve sussed out that if you drop a stone into a glass of water, it will rise.

Now those New Caledonians have been observed doing yet another holy crap, that’s awesome kind of thing. As reported in New Scientist, the crows have now been seen using tools to carry another object, like slipping a wooden stick into a metal nut. It’s reportedly the first time that a nonhuman animal has been seen inserting one object into another to transport it somewhere. “One subject used a stick to transport an object that was too large to be handled by beak, which suggests the tool facilitated object control,” writes lead author and Lund University cognitive scientist Ivo F. Jacobs and his colleagues. “The function in the other cases is unclear but seems to be an expression of play or exploration.”

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It’s important to note that these are captive birds, so scientists will also need to venture into the wild to see if the crows do the same thing in their native habitats. Researchers will also need to see what, exactly, the birds use their newly discovered transportation ability for. But since this species has also been known to reach for food with tools and use tools to “explore” new objects they encounter, they demonstrate “generalized” intelligence around how to use the tools, which is cognitively complex. This new behavior of using a tool to carry something shows their intelligence goes even further. At this point, I wouldn’t be too surprised if they were next found using sticks to sketch self-portraits.

Corvids — the family of birds that include ravens, jays, and magpies — are always up to all sorts of crazy stuff. When wild American crows see their dead, they investigate for signs of danger. Scrub jays will hide their food in up to 200 places and remember them and also keep track of anyone watching them do so. When predators like eagles or hawks cruise into their territory, several corvids will chase them away — it’s literally called “mobbing.” Most amazing, if six ravens don’t keep guarding the Tower of London, the British Empire will fall. So the next time you see a corvid, give it a little wink. That way they know that you know what’s up.