Crows rock at making complex tools: Study

Crows are not only excellent toolmakers, it turns out they are absolute rock stars when it comes to creating complex tools.  A new study has demonstrated that crows can imagine how to fashion together a complex tool from something they have never encountered before. And that is really something…

Here is your daily proof that animals are much cleverer than scientists used to think: crows have figured out to build a long stick by slotting together smaller sticks, in order to reach an inaccessible piece of food.

According to lead author Alex Kacelnik at the University of Oxford, this tells us something about how the crows think. “They have never seen this compound tool, but somehow they can predict its properties,” he told the BBC. “So they can predict what something that does not yet exist would do if they made it. Then they can make it and they can use it.”


Study overview

Researcher presented eight New Caledonian crows with a box containing a piece of food. But the food was behind a door, which left only a narrow gap at the bottom. The food was too far inside the box for the crows to reach in with their beaks.

The team also gave the crows sticks, which were designed to join up: one was hollow, for another stick to be slotted inside. Four of the eight crows figured this out, built a long stick and retrieved the food. One of them went further and made sticks from up to four pieces.

The takeaway

The new study shows that these birds can create long-reaching tools out of short combinable parts — an astonishing mental feat. Assemblage of different components into novel functional and maneuverable tools has, until now, only been observed in apes, and anthropologists regard early human compound tool manufacture as a significant step in brain evolution. Children take several years before creating novel tools, probably because it requires anticipating properties of yet unseen objects. Such anticipation, or planning, is usually interpreted as involving creative mental modelling and executive functions.

The study demonstrates that this species of crow possess highly flexible abilities that allow them to solve complex problems involving anticipation of the properties of objects they have never seen.

“The finding is remarkable because the crows received no assistance or training in making these combinations, they figured it out by themselves.”  -Dr. Auguste von Bayern, lead scientist, Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology and University of Oxford

Read more about this study and other studies demonstrating how intelligent crows and other nonhuman animals are here and here.


Journal Reference: A. M. P. von Bayern, S. Danel, A. M. I. Auersperg, B. Mioduszewska, A. Kacelnik. Compound tool construction by New Caledonian crows. Scientific Reports, 2018; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-33458-z


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