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The amazing intelligence of crows

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Hacker and writer Joshua Klein is fascinated by crows. (Notice the gleam of intelligence in their little black eyes?) After a long amateur study of corvid behavior, he's come up with an elegant machine that may form a new bond between animal and human.

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More on Betty...

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Betty the Crow Proves She's No Bird-Brain

-- Shocking results from experiment give new insight to bird's intelligence.--

The Behavioral Ecology Research Group at Oxford University's Department of Zoology investigates animal and human decision making with the tools of experimental psychology and of evolutionary biology. The main experimental models, apart from New Caledonian crows as used in this experiment, are European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Some current and previous issues include: risk-sensitive foraging behavior, animal decision making, parental and begging behavior, and time perception. For further information, see:

The New Caledonian crows last made headlines in December when their preference for using the right side of their beak was discovered. The bird rips pieces from leaves and turn them into tools for removing insects from trees. But when it did, more often than not it used the right side of its beak.

This preference for one side of the body over another is more commonly seen in humans, gorillas and chimps, and its discovery in a bird species raises the question of how it developed.

Some researchers have suggested that the tendency towards right-handedness in humans is a result of the ability to speak, a mental activity concentrated in the half of the brain which controls the body's right side. The discovery of "right-beakedness" in crows makes it look more likely that handedness has a more general origin. Turning a leaf into an effective insect-winkling tool requires a considerable degree of brain effort. Dr Hunt and his colleagues say their results point towards handedness being a product of being able to carry out complex sequences of actions. Those sequences of actions could result in the making of a tool or the production of speech. Either way, concentrating all the brain effort in one side of the brain seems to be a more efficient way of thinking and acting. So, the results of this past development are consistent with the new, birds are turning out to be alot smarter than we thought they were.

NOTE: Other birds have also shown surprising levels of ingenuity. ƒThe woodpecker finch of the Galapagos Islands uses a cactus spine to spear insects. Pigeons have been known to recognize humans and letters of alphabet. Parrots, though, appear to be at the top of the pecking order. Alex, an African gray parrot, hit the headlines in the 1980s. The bird had a vocabulary of 100 English words and was able to ask questions and make requests.


LONDON - In a challenge to man's sense of the uniqueness of his own intelligence, an ingenious crow called Betty has managed repeatedly to twist wire into a hook to lift food from a tube in a British laboratory. "We had to convince ourselves it was not a fluke, so we repeated the test 10 times and the animal did it in nine of those," said an excited Professor Alex Kacelnik, who led the ex‡periment at Oxford University. Showing an extremely rare capacity for an animal to understand cause and effect and create a tool out of non-natural material, the female crow bent straight garden wire -- a material she had only seen before on cage meshes -- into a hook.

The researchers were testing whether the birds were able to lift food out of a vertical tube using either a straight piece of wire or a hook. "The surprise came in trial number five when the male stole away the hook and flew to another part of the aviary," said Professor Kacelnik. He watched as Betty spontaneously bent a straight piece of wire and used it to retrieve the snack.

She held it in her beak to lower into a vertical pipe from which she lifted" a small bucket with meat morsels inside. That display of what the team of three scientists call "toolrelated cognitive capabilities" has challenged previous assumptions that primates like apes were the best after humans in problem solving intelligence. "We assume primates will be cleverer because they are closest to us," Kacelnik added in a phone interview from his laboratory in Oxford. "But this animal (Betty) seems to be on a par at least with any primates we have seen." In the tests, Betty consistently outsmarted her older male crow companion Abel -- both from the Corvus Moneduloides species on the Pacific island of New Caledonia. Fortunately for male pride, however, scientists attributed Betty's superior brainpower to her relative youth, not sex.

The only time in 10 experiments when Betty did not make a hook out of the wire was when Abel managed to bring the food up with straight wire. On other occasions, he waited for Betty to bring out the food then stole it from her.

Argentine-born Kacelnik, and British colleagues Jackie Chappell and Alex Weir carried out the crow experiments three months ago and reported them in a paper published by this week's edition of U.S. magazine Science. "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 three meters from thÌe food, where there was no tape," they wrote in their paper. "In all cases but one, she tried with the straight wire before starting to make the hook. In all valid trials, the birds retrieved the food within two minutes."

In the wild, crows often use twigs as hooks, but Betty's achievement was to manufacture a non-natural material with a specific task in mind. "She had no model to imitate ... Purposeful modification of objects by animals for use as tools, without extensive prior experience, is almost unknown," the scientists said.

The scientists said in similar experiments done by others, only once had a male monkey managed to unbend a piece of wire to obtain honey. In another precedent they cited, chimpanzees repeatedly failed !to unbend piping and put it through a hole to grab an apple, unless they received coaching.

"I think the important message is that there is not just one way of being intelligent as we understand it," Kacelnik added. "Different types of intelligence evolve for different animals." Animal insight New Caledonian crows have been seen to make at least two sorts of hook tools in the wild.

Full details of the Oxford University research are published in Science (9 August 2002), 'Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows' by Alexander Weir, Jackie Chappell and Alex Kacelnik.


In the wild, New Caledonian crows make at least two sorts of hook tools using distinct techniques, but the method used by the female crow in this experiment is different from those and would be unlikely to be: effective with natural materials. While they were familiar with similar experiments they had no experience with wires. The findings may have wide-ranging implications regarding birds' understanding of physics and their quality of reasoning about cause and effect.

The team is now exploring whether New Caledonian crows are exceptionally clever in many other respects, or whether they have brains specially evolved for the use and manufacture of tools. Alex Kacelnik, Professor of Behavioral Ecology, said: 'Although many animals use tools, purposeful modification of objects to solve new problems, without training or prior experience, is virtually unknown. Experiments with primates, who are much closer relatives of humans than birds, have failed to show any deliberate, specific tool making and human-like understandinÏg of basic physical laws.

'We are now keen to elucidate if New Caledonian crows are outstanding in all aspects of their intelligence or only in those related to tool manufacturing and use. In other words we want to understand what kind of mind these crows have. This will give us the opportunity to test hypotheses about the conditions which are needed for complex cognition to evolve.'

Gavin Hunt of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, has studied them. He said the behavior of the young female crow was very interesting but not that surprising. "It is tempting to say that the bird used some kind of insight to access and solve the problem of extracting the food, as humans often do in their toolmaking," he told BBC News Online. "However, we need to carry out more experiments to see if this was the case."



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