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Tool Time With Crows

Crows are recognizable as big, black, noisy birds. They have lots of interesting quirks, like eating basically anything, having the ability to remember a human face and grouping in “murders,” which is the actual name for a group of crows. They have a bit of fame too, staring in the classic Alfred Hitchcock film “The Birds” — and let’s not forget the three-eyed raven in “Game of Thrones.”

An American crow. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Here’s another fun fact to add to their list. More research is being done on how members of the crow family are using tools. Plus, the tools are getting more complex as the studies continue!

The subjects

Crows, ravens, magpies and blue jays all belong to the Corvidae family of birds. (No, these birds have nothing to do with COVID!) This family is considered the most intelligent of the birds. Breaking it down further, the genus Corvus consist of crows and ravens. Crows live all over the world except Antarctica. In Illinois, the American crow is common throughout the entire state. In fact, they can be found across the entire country. Common ravens live in the western states and up north closer to Canada. Other species of crows and ravens live across the country in smaller ranges. Plus, there is a total of 40 different species around the world.

The studies

To study how crows use tools, researchers have drilled holes into logs and stuffed them with tasty treats for the birds to retrieve. These holes were too small to fit the crows’ beaks. Within seconds, one of the crows looked for a stick and began probing the holes to get the food out.

Check out this crow that takes one extra step. It figures out that carving a hook at the end of stick is more effective at getting the food.

New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) are taking tool use to the next level. They have proven that they can use tools, make tools and manipulate other tools. These particular crows have unusually straight bills and forward-facing eyes. These traits help them hold the sticks and see what they are doing with more precision compared to other species.

Their test first starts with a clear box with food inside. The New Caledonian crows quickly figured out they needed a stick to put in a gap in the box to slide the food out. Once they figured out how to use the box, the researchers would change the length of the stick. Shorter sticks were provided that weren’t long enough to reach the food in the box. They also included different items, like plastic tubes, to combine with the stick to make it longer. Without any help, the crows figured out how to insert the sticks in the tubes to make them long enough to reach the food.

See a crow work out a puzzle for yourself! In this video a crow solves eight separates stages to get the treat!


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