Crows Shown to Build Complex Tools from Multiple Separate Parts, Something Only Great Apes and Humans Have Been Shown Doing

Crows continue to prove that they have amazing attributes unique among animals. Crows likely have more to teach humans that study them about cognitive processes, which would aid understanding of the human mind.

Well, we didn’t think it was possible, but we should have had more faith in our feathered corvid friends: crows just got even cooler. Researchers have discovered that crows don’t just use single objects as tools; they can also make them out of multiple parts that are individually useless.

Let that sink in for a moment.

We already knew that corvids – crows and ravens – are capable of reasoning cause and effect, solving multi-step puzzles, planning for the future and even fashioning simple tools out of sticks and paper.

But making compound tools is something that has only ever been observed before in primates – specifically, humans and and great apes.

Even young humans take several years to be able to learn this skill, because cognitively speaking, it’s actually quite complex. It requires the ability to anticipate the properties of objects, and to be able to mentally map the consequences of putting them together prior to doing so.

As such, it’s considered a pretty important milestone when it comes to brain evolution. So observing it in birds is pretty spectacular.

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

The team conducted their research on eight New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides), a bird well known for its intelligence.

Japanese Crow Steals Credit Card to Buy a Train Ticket

The wonders of crow intelligence appear once again.

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We know crows are like, really smart, but are they use-a-credit-card-to-buy-a-train-ticket smart? Well, actually… maybe. One crow has been caught in the act of appearing to try just that after stealing a woman’s credit card in Japan.

In the video from Tokyo’s Kinshichō Station, originally posted to Twitter by user @kinoshi42155049, the corvid is filmed inspecting a ticket machine before hopping over to the customer at the next machine and stealing her credit card as her machine ejects it.

It doesn’t seem to know quite what to do after that point, though – it’s possible that it just wanted the card because of the shiny hologram sticker. (Apparently, the crow did return the card to its owner.)

But there’s evidence that corvids can easily understand bartering. Not only are crows able to reason out cause and effect, ravens have shown they can plan for the future and barter for the items they might need to be able to obtain high-quality food later.

And inventor Josh Klein in the US created a sort of crow vending machine that dispenses peanuts when the birds insert a coin – the idea being to train wild crows to find lost coins in exchange for a snack. Guess what, it works.

Of course, in all of these scenarios the crows have been shown the basics, but there’s evidence that wild crows can work out problems all on their own – such as using the way traffic lights stop cars to drop nuts to be cracked open by the traffic when it starts flowing again.

They even craft their own tools out of sticks to obtain food their beaks can’t reach, and save their favourite tools to use again.

To be clear, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that the crow in this video knows what a credit card is for, or how ticket machines work… but, based on what we know of corvid intelligence, we wouldn’t be surprised if it was trying to figure it out.

You can read some more about the incredible smarts of these amazing birds here.

Unexpected Look of the Ears of Crows

It’s nice to see this happy crow.

The footage below, posted by trained crow handler and animal volunteer Olly Peckar, shows a very happy crow getting some gentle pets while Olly exposes its ear from underneath its feathers.

Let’s just say we weren’t expecting something that… big?

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Avian ears lack the external pinnae that our human ears have, but they do have an internal cochlea like us – only it’s not shaped like a spiral, it’s mostly straight.

Birds are known for their keen sense of hearing, and also their ability to figure out if a sound is coming from above, below, behind, or next to them.

Wherever the source is situated, somehow a bird is able to localise it, and all without an external ear structure like mammals have.

Scientists have only recently figured out how they do this, and it turns out that in lieu of an external ear, birds use their entire heads to detect the location of incoming sound waves.

“Because birds have no external ears, it has long been believed that they are unable to differentiate between sounds coming from different elevations,” Hans A. Schnyder from the Technische Universität München in Germany explained.

“But a female blackbird should be able to locate her chosen mate even if the source of the serenade is above her.”

Back in 2014, Schnyder and his team investigated the hearing ability of three bird species – crow, duck, and chicken.

They found that the birds were able to identify sounds from different elevation angles thanks to their slightly oval-shaped heads, which appear to process sound waves in a similar way to the external ears of mammals.

Turns out, birds receive different sounds at different volumes, and this helps them figure out the general direction of the source.

Sounds originating from the same side as the ear hit the eardrum at a certain frequency, but once they passed through the head and reached the eardrum on the other side, they would register at a different frequency.

“The eardrum differences allowed the bird’s brain to determine whether the sound was coming from above or below or at level with the bird,” CBC News explains. “That meant the bird’s head was able to reflect, absorb or diffract the sounds.”

Research Into Crows Making Tools

Why surprisingly intelligent crows make elaborately crafted tools — increased efficiency at catching food.

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The new study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution today (22 January), explores why crows go the extra mile rather than using simple, unmodified sticks to extract prey — it allows them to get at hidden food several times faster than if they used basic (non-hooked) tools.

[…]

Biologists have long assumed that there was some benefit to crows manufacturing hooked tools, but had no idea just how much better they might be. The Scottish team conducted experiments to record how long wild-caught crows took to extract food from a range of naturalistic tasks, using either hooked or non-hooked tool designs.

Depending on the task, they found that hooked tools were between two and ten times more efficient than non-hooked tools. “That’s a huge difference!” says project leader, Professor Christian Rutz from the University of St Andrews. “Our results highlight that even relatively small changes to tool designs can significantly boost foraging performance.”

These new findings help explain why New Caledonian crows have evolved such remarkable tool-making abilities: “In nature, getting food quickly means that birds have more time and energy for reproduction and steering clear of predators. It’s really exciting that we were able to measure the benefits of these nifty crow tools,” adds study co-author Professor Nick Colegrave from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences.

Scientists still don’t know how crows acquire the ‘know-how’ and make hooks; they may inherit the ability from their parents, or learn by observing experienced birds. Either way, because hooked-tool users will live longer and leave more offspring, the skill is expected to spread.

Professor Rutz notes wryly: “We’ve all heard that the early bird gets the worm. In the case of the New Caledonian crow, it’s the skilled hook-maker that gets the worm, or at least it gets many more worms than its less-crafty neighbours!”