The wonders of crow intelligence appear once again.
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.
Why surprisingly intelligent crows make elaborately crafted tools — increased efficiency at catching food.
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!”
Crows are surprisingly intelligent and amazing creatures.
New Caledonian crows are the only species besides humans known to manufacture hooked tools in the wild. Birds produce these remarkable tools from the side branches of certain plants, carefully ‘crafting’ a crochet-like hook that can be used for snagging insect prey.
The study, published in Current Biology today (7 December), reveals how crows manage to fashion particularly efficient tools, with well-defined ‘deep’ hooks.
The hook is widely regarded as one of humankind’s most important innovations, with skilful reshaping, a useless piece of raw material is transformed into a powerful tool. While our ancestors started making stone tools over 3 million years ago, hooks are a surprisingly recent advance — the oldest known fish hooks are just 23,000 years old.
Project leader Professor Christian Rutz, from the School of Biology, has conducted field research on New Caledonian crows for over a decade. His team recently noticed that crows’ hooked tools vary considerably in size and shape. While some tools only exhibit a small extension at the tip, others have immaculate hooks.
Professor Rutz explains: “We suspected that tools with pronounced hooks are more efficient, and were able to confirm this in controlled experiments with wild-caught crows. The deeper the hook, the faster birds winkled bait from holes in wooden logs.”
This finding raised the intriguing question of what it takes to make such well-formed hooks. The researchers started planning their study by imagining how humans would approach a comparable task. “When a craftsperson carves a tool from a piece of wood, two things ensure a quality product: good raw materials and skill,” Professor Rutz said.
Intelligence can be difficult to measure well. I do know from my own experience how creativity is often based in linking concepts though.
Differences in intelligence have so far mostly been attributed to differences in specific brain regions. However, are smart people’s brains also wired differently to those of less intelligent persons? A new study supports this assumption. In intelligent persons, certain brain regions are more strongly involved in the flow of information between brain regions, while other brain regions are less engaged.
Earlier this year, the research team reported that in more intelligent persons two brain regions involved in the cognitive processing of task-relevant information (i.e., the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex) are connected more efficiently to the rest of the brain (2017, Intelligence). Another brain region, the junction area between temporal and parietal cortex that has been related to the shielding of thoughts against irrelevant information, is less strongly connected to the rest of the brain network. “The different topological embedding of these regions into the brain network could make it easier for smarter persons to differentiate between important and irrelevant information — which would be advantageous for many cognitive challenges,” proposes Ulrike Basten, the study’s principle investigator.
The study shows that in more intelligent persons certain brain regions are clearly more strongly involved in the exchange of information between different sub-networks of the brain in order for important information to be communicated quickly and efficiently. On the other hand, the research team also identified brain regions that are more strongly ‘de-coupled’ from the rest of the network in more intelligent people. This may result in better protection against distracting and irrelevant inputs. “We assume that network properties we have found in more intelligent persons help us to focus mentally and to ignore or suppress irrelevant, potentially distracting inputs,” says Basten. The causes of these associations remain an open question at present. “It is possible that due to their biological predispositions, some individuals develop brain networks that favor intelligent behaviors or more challenging cognitive tasks. However, it is equally as likely that the frequent use of the brain for cognitively challenging tasks may positively influence the development of brain networks. Given what we currently know about intelligence, an interplay of both processes seems most likely.”