Tool-Making Crow
July 22, 2003 10:17 AM   Subscribe

Tool Making Crow
"In the experiments, a captive female crow, confronted with a task that required a curved tool (retrieving a food-containing bucket from a vertical pipe), spontaneously bent a piece of straight wire into a hooked shape -- and then repeated the behavior in nine out of ten subsequent trials." The behavior was captured on an amazing video clip.
posted by Irontom (55 comments total)
"Though these crows are known to employ tools in the wild using natural materials, this bird had no prior training with the use of pliant materials such as wire -- a fact that makes its apparently spontaneous, highly specific problem-solving all the more interesting, and raises intriguing questions about the evolutionary preconditions for complex cognition. "
posted by Irontom at 10:17 AM on July 22, 2003

and here we thought cats with opposable thumbs were the greatest threat to human dominance...
posted by quonsar at 10:21 AM on July 22, 2003

Last time the tool-making crow was mentioned (that I know of) was on the interesting homo chimpanzees thread. Lotsa other links to related animal-consciousness stuff there.

Get yer mind outa the gutter. Not that kind of homo.
posted by soyjoy at 10:23 AM on July 22, 2003

I, for one, welcome our new bird overlords...

I have a running bet with my roommate that birds will succeed in "ruling" the earth many, many, many years from now, much like mammals have succeded those giant lizard-beasts.
posted by salsamander at 10:25 AM on July 22, 2003

That's both amazing and disturbing.
posted by occhiblu at 10:25 AM on July 22, 2003

via memepool, pretty much directly, it would seem.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:29 AM on July 22, 2003

Cool, I'm gonna get a bunch of crows to build me a deck.
posted by BigPicnic at 10:41 AM on July 22, 2003

Crow's taking over. It's been on the Simpsons, folks... remember Homer's medical marijuana episode?
posted by zekinskia at 10:45 AM on July 22, 2003

That's amazing. Thanks, IronTom!
posted by squirrel at 10:46 AM on July 22, 2003

That's both amazing and disturbing.

Why disturbing?
posted by timeistight at 10:49 AM on July 22, 2003

This was featured in a British TV programme fairly recently, "Britain's smartest animals" or something similar. It did not win due to it not being "British" or some such little quirk in the system.

It also featured squirrels, and badgers. The animal that won was another bird, I believe it was a group of crows at a motorway service area in England.

It's claim to intelligence was the method it chose for retrieving food from the bins. It stood on the edge of the bin-bag, reached down and pulled more of the bag up, it then stood on the raised plastic thus raising the contents bit by bit. It continued to do this until it could reach whatever prime morsel it had its eye on and then it flew off with the food.

The really intelligent birds were distinguished by the way when they reached the food they threw out much of it onto the pavement beside the bin, so it could get more than one piece at a time.

Daphne du Maurier's vision is only the next step.
posted by knapah at 10:58 AM on July 22, 2003

Actually q, it's dolphins...
posted by Stynxno at 11:00 AM on July 22, 2003

I find it odd that no one has mentioned this Aesop's fable yet:

A CROW perishing with thirst saw a pitcher, and hoping to find water, flew to it with delight. When he reached it, he discovered to his grief that it contained so little water that he could not possibly get at it. He tried everything he could think of to reach the water, but all his efforts were in vain. At last he collected as many stones as he could carry and dropped them one by one with his beak into the pitcher, until he brought the water within his reach and thus saved his life.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Obviously, Aesop is all about anthropomorphic animals, but you've gotta love the uncanny similarity.
posted by condour75 at 11:12 AM on July 22, 2003

"Disturbing" because a creature with a rather large sharp beak and scaly clawed feet knows how to manipulate materials in order to create tools.
posted by occhiblu at 11:21 AM on July 22, 2003

What's the big deal? I could do that, no problem.
posted by bradth27 at 11:30 AM on July 22, 2003

Yeah, and ever since I read the Birds as a ten year old (way too young) I've had nightmares about our avian overlords.

And crows are just creepy anyway....practically every culture that I know about sees crows as a bad omen..and now they're taking over. Damn.
posted by pjgulliver at 11:33 AM on July 22, 2003

Crows do lots of stuff that looks smart. Doesn't mean it's ethical.
posted by cookie-k at 11:34 AM on July 22, 2003

Cool, I'm gonna get a bunch of crows to build me a deck.

Don't you mean a murder of crows?

If squirrels (present company excluded) learn to use tools, then we're in trouble.
posted by Frank Grimes at 11:38 AM on July 22, 2003

condour75 - I'd bet that was more than a fable of Aesop's. He probably watched a crow doing something as ingenious - if not that exact stone trick - and wrote it up as a fable because he was wise in the ways of human nature and so realized that no one would believe that crows were so smart and inventive: "Oh Aesop, not another of those bullshit stories about the crows and their tool making....."

For that matter, I have a dog - 20 pounds and very crafty indeed - who used to hide under or behind furniture close to the door - if it was ajar he would very slowly sidle out, while making discrete little sidelong glances to make sure his escape wasn't being noticed. Then - I lived in a warehouse packed with artists and other weirdos at this point - he would check the loading dock door and, if the roll down screen was pulled down, he would go cross the 100 yard warehouse first floor and go down to the basement and look for open windows in the pottery studio. Finding none, he would proceed up the stairway to the front door entrance and wait for someone to come in so he could dart out. He used to escape a lot, and so I deduced this escape protocol of his over dozens of escape attempts - some successful and some not.

It was so calculated, this escape protocol of his and - in all of it's apparent elements - the apparent planning, studied knowledge of the escape route, his use of subterfuge, apparent contingency plans, and so on - it was a bit like "Escape From Alcatraz".

When he successfully escaped he would make a beeline through city traffic, to the nearest dog-walk park about 3/4 mile away, where he would be likely to encounter female dogs. Finding none at the first dog walk park, he would proceed along the areas of high dog walking density, and continue on to a much larger park about a mile away. The point was sex.
posted by troutfishing at 11:40 AM on July 22, 2003

Grimey- good point! I meant, I'll get a murder of crows to build my deck. Actually, it sounds too scary now. Forget it.
posted by BigPicnic at 11:44 AM on July 22, 2003

Troutfishing...that's a damn cool dog.
posted by pjgulliver at 11:46 AM on July 22, 2003

pjgulliver, occchiblu - I've heard, from a man who has watched them quite a bit, that crows also employ collective team strategies. I know that many birds employ mobbing strategies to drive off larger predatory birds or other animals - but this acquiantance of mine claimed that they also employed sentinels, or scouts.

Meanwhile, I guess you haven't heard about the new - birds with teeth Think of it - tool using, beaked birds with teeth

"Caw! caw! Caw caw caw!"

* looks over shoulder, scans the sky *

"Caw caw caw!"
posted by troutfishing at 11:50 AM on July 22, 2003

So does anyone know of (non-human) animals that can teach non-instinct skills to their ilk? Do birds build nests by instinct or by learning it? Is there a doctor/ornithologist in the house?
posted by mhh5 at 11:54 AM on July 22, 2003

Isn't that fairly common with mammalian predators? On practically every nature show I tune into I see the mother cheetah teaching her offspring the secrets of the hunt. Given all the domestic cats I've known who were completely incompetent hunters I tend to believe there's a considerable amount of non-instinct skill to it.
posted by furiousthought at 12:05 PM on July 22, 2003

Frank Grimes - you might like the book called "101 ways to outwit squirrels." The book's conclusion? - You can try all 101 of the listed ways, but it's probably hopeless: you can't outwit a squirrel.

Meanwhile, this just in:

"....The researchers placed the hungry tourists in a large cage which contained a bottle filled with food pellets which was immovably affixed to the floor of the cage (to defeat the "bottle inversion" tactic) and which had a long neck too narrow for their prehensile grasping fingers.

There were several sources of raw material for tools available in the cage, including a coathanger. In one of the experiments, a male tourist employed the coathanger to hang his sports jersey but was unable to devise a method or fashion a tool by which he could access the food pellets. In no cases were the tourists able succeed at the task, and the researchers surmised that the test subjects were challenged beyond the limits of their cognitive ability. "

posted by troutfishing at 12:05 PM on July 22, 2003

Russell Crowe's becoming a tool-and-die maker? Wow. First Daniel Day-Lewis becomes a cobbler, and now this.
posted by scody at 12:08 PM on July 22, 2003

Closest thing to smart that my cat has done is watch me turn on the water tap for him to take a drink, and he now sits on the counter and slowly bats at one side of the knob until a trickle of water appears. I've secretly watched him do this a couple of times.

Sadly, he's not smart enough to turn off the water yet so I've been forced to make sure the knob is very tight in the off position so he doesn't create a big water bill on weekends we go away.
posted by grum@work at 12:21 PM on July 22, 2003

We shouldn't be so surprised by animal intelligence. After all, we ourselves are animals. The idea that tool making is an inherently human trait has been exploded by examples of many other animals making tools, from African gray parrots to all manner of apes.

Ravens are pretty clever too. Ravens in Canada have been known to cover up the light sensors on streetlamps to get the lights to go on during the middle of the day, keeping them warm in the winter.
posted by norm at 12:22 PM on July 22, 2003

I remember reading somewhere once that almost all mammals have a deep seated aversion to reptiles, and a lesser, but still compelling, aversion to much of the avian world. And current scientific theory has birds as the descendants as dinosaurs. The article posited that this is really deep, hardwired fears in all mammals dating back to when mammals were the tiny scavangers of the dinosaur world.
posted by pjgulliver at 12:25 PM on July 22, 2003

"Disturbing" because a creature with a rather large sharp beak and scaly clawed feet knows how to manipulate materials in order to create tools.

You figure tactical nuclear weapons are just around the corner?
posted by timeistight at 12:39 PM on July 22, 2003

Wow. I like corvid and not all cultures see them simply as bad omens. In the Pacific NW the tribes have different stories about how Raven brought the sun, moon, fire, etc. to the world and how he either made the first people or released them from a clam. A favorite sculpture of mine is Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, B.C.
posted by lobakgo at 12:39 PM on July 22, 2003

Hm. This seems familiar. It's the same study we discussed last August, just in a different guise.
posted by jdroth at 12:39 PM on July 22, 2003

Cool lobakgo, I didn't know that about Pacific NW tribes...doesn't change the fact that crows still are creepy to me...but cool none the less.
posted by pjgulliver at 12:51 PM on July 22, 2003

troutfishing, strangely enough, I already own the wonderful 101 Ways to Outwit Squirrels.

Here are some amazing videos of squirrels navigating an obstacle course. The two strangest things I've seen squirrels do is carry a small pumpkin up a tree and waterski.
posted by Frank Grimes at 1:11 PM on July 22, 2003

On practically every nature show I tune into I see the mother cheetah teaching her offspring the secrets of the hunt. Given all the domestic cats I've known who were completely incompetent hunters I tend to believe there's a considerable amount of non-instinct skill to it.

Domestic cats certainly do learn hunting from their mothers, starting at around 6 weeks of age. Cats that never get this education are usually poor hunters for the rest of their lives.

I adopted two "street cats", and you can clearly tell that one of them got the lessons, and the other didn't. The one is quite adept at catching insects, and the other is rather clumsy at it. They can both hunt successfully, but the difference in skill is striking.
posted by vorfeed at 1:15 PM on July 22, 2003

You figure tactical nuclear weapons are just around the corner?

Certainly within 45 minutes...
posted by occhiblu at 1:23 PM on July 22, 2003

On the Aesop's fable note. In that same TV program I mentioned earlier, a man had trained some ravens in his garden to do this to get at a piece of steak inside a tube filled with water. He left some water filled capsules around the garden and somehow trained them to use them to get at the steak.
posted by knapah at 1:23 PM on July 22, 2003

I wouldn't worry about crows until they start killing each other in the name of some deity.
posted by tommasz at 1:32 PM on July 22, 2003

There's an easy way to outwit squirrels, but it's kinda permanent...

And if crows are so smart, why haven't they found a cure for the West Nile virus yet?
posted by tyro urge at 1:39 PM on July 22, 2003

Frank Grimes - That's weird. Meanwhile, a guy who was watching me type my comments in this coffee shop w/net access in Mendocino, CA. got all excited over the "crows-making-tools" story. He said that he had a fight with his girlfriend and that the crow story redeemed his day. He said he had a book about dogs making art by digging holes in a row, piling sticks together, and so on and actually showed me the book - but now I can't recall the title, nor can I find anything about it on the net.

tyro urge - Well let me tell you: the crows are intentionally and heroically sacrificing themselves, in their role as a major vector of West Nile Virus, to get at us!
posted by troutfishing at 3:57 PM on July 22, 2003

I knew this was going to come true one day!
posted by dg at 5:37 PM on July 22, 2003

Crows: Tomorrow's Bird
posted by eatitlive at 6:14 PM on July 22, 2003

Crows are very proud birds. They're known for their esprit de caw.
posted by SPrintF at 8:12 PM on July 22, 2003

Do birds build nests by instinct or by learning it? Is there a doctor/ornithologist in the house?

I'd imagine most birds build nests by instinct: they didn't see their parents build the nest they were born in. And most of them won't still be hanging around when their parents nest for the next brood. They learn other things, though, like songs.

I remember reading somewhere once that almost all mammals have a deep seated aversion to reptiles

Except, of course, for 5-10 year old human males. I did have a dog once who was terrified of snakes. He'd had a bad experience with one as a puppy, though.

Speaking of pet intelligence, another dog I had was extremely smart. He liked to chase streams of water from the garden hose; if you didn't spray it for him, he'd do it himself. He'd hold the hose end down with one foreleg, then fumble with the spray-gun-thing on the end of the hose with the other leg until he made it squirt, at which point he'd try to bite the stream of water.
posted by crake at 9:20 PM on July 22, 2003

"In the experiments, a captive female crow[...]"

If crows are so smart, how come she didn't escape, eh?
posted by spazzm at 10:15 PM on July 22, 2003

Speaking of smart critters...
My dog is blind (except knowing it's light/dark), profoundly deaf, and smells poorly (or so I thought). Smells bad, too, now that I think about it. Last week she escaped the kitchen, and somehow got a hold of the last of my Easter basket of candy. Now, this basket is on top of a scanner, on top of a file cabinet, behind a stack of cd's (the ones I used to make my MeFi swap disk!), next to my computer. So this blind, deaf, 15-year-old--ok, lame, too--pup had to have smelled the M&M's INSIDE PLASTIC EGGS, then climbed onto the wicker chair I'm sitting as I type, grab the basket (without knocking down the CDs, recall), and then get down. I had fun cleaning up all the plastic grass. Then I had fun with the chocolate-flavored barf in the kitchen later that night.
posted by notsnot at 10:57 PM on July 22, 2003

Crows are astonishing animals.

There is a rather tall building across from where I work that crows sit along the top of. On windy days, and I am not shitting you, they seem to literally hold extreme landing competitions between themselves.

Envision this:

You've got a row of twenty or thirty crows on the edge of a building. You stop to watch them for some reason and then all of a sudden a plummeting, dipping and diving black splotch catches your eye and lands next to the other crows perched on the side of the roof. A moment or so later another crow takes off and does the same thing while the others seem to wait their turn. Watching and learning.

It was obvious they were fascinated by the wind inversion between the tallish building and the windless vacuum it created on its leeward side. But that they took turns trying it out as a group was astonishing and mesmerizing!

Sometimes I get into conversations with people up here about the crows. Just about everyone has an amazing crow story it seems.

Another thing is, when you spot a brave pigeon pecking around you know the crows are somewhere else. Actually with just about any bird the same goes. I've generally observed that no other form of bird is to be found when a murder of crows come to visit your neighborhood. I actually worry about my smaller than normal cat sometimes when she sits in the open window and I'm not home. Somewhere in my imagination I fully expect to come home and find my dear pussycat pecked to death.

Nahhhhh. They're just crows.
posted by crasspastor at 11:16 PM on July 22, 2003

Aren't crows regarded as the creators of the world in Native American culture?
posted by Blue Stone at 1:53 AM on July 23, 2003

I should have written "one time I observed the crows" doing what I wrote above. It's not like they meet there every windy Wednesday at four. Still, they are insanely smart. They remind me of the Velociraptors as portrayed in Jurassic Park when they stalk around on their feet. Sometimes it seems that they're telling you they're too good to take flight because of the likes of your slow human ass when you happen upon one. It's as if they've learned that humans only have so many powers when it comes to thwarting their devices. They can fly and we cannot. I really believe the crows have that down.

I should really ask Matt if I can change my screename to don'tevengetmestartedaboutcrows.
posted by crasspastor at 2:52 AM on July 23, 2003

While we’re on a related subject, does anyone know if the story about the Parliament of Rooks is true?

“[Rooks] like to flock together. They have a highly developed language, compared to other birds, and like parrots can be trained to mimic human speech. Most peculiarly of all, their collective name - a parliament of rooks - comes from a custom they have of gathering in a field. Thousands of rooks will converge for no apparent reason. A space in the middle of the birds will be formed, and a single rook will be found standing in that space. The rook will caw, and caw some more. This can go on for hours. At the end of some unspecified time limit, there will be a brief silence; and then the rooks will do one of two things: either they will all fly away, never to converge on that particular field again - or they will set themselves on the lone rook and peck it to death. It appears to be a sort of trial, hence the name.”

From here but first encountered via the Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels.
posted by dmt at 5:18 AM on July 23, 2003

New Zealand has these parrots called keas, who like to eat windshield wipers. When we got back to the car after a hike, there was a large, aggressive, car-eating parrot on top of the car, and we spent about five minutes on various attempts to outsmart the bird and get into the car. What worked was one of us went to the passenger door and waited for the bird to charge, which gave the other person the chance to get in the driver-side door, which caused the bird to charge that way, letting the other person get in on the passenger side. So I'm slightly smarter than parrots that eat windshield wipers.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:40 AM on July 23, 2003

They remind me of the Velociraptors as portrayed in Jurassic Park when they stalk around on their feet.

Not too surprising - crows are their descendants. Not so big and toothy, but probably smarter...
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:24 AM on July 23, 2003

Apologies for my impending digression. It's just another funky animal story if you want to skip it.

I had a dog which could throw itself stones. This because I would take him for long walks, but require him to stay in the same place for an hour or so at some point, whilst I sat fumbling for which words to fit together and simultaneously had a crafty smoke away from prying noses.

Anyway, he'd choose a stone, amble to the top of a rise, hunker down and drop the stone onto his two front legs just in the crook of the elbow joint, and then leap suddenly up into the air. The stone would fly outwards and bounce its way down the hill whilst he'd joyfully bound after it, barking fiercely the whole time. He'd then sheepishly bring it back up the hill and repeat the whole exercise.

Of course he'd prefer it if I threw them, but for that hour or so I was pretty much oblivious, so he learned the hard way. This was the same dog that caused us to change all of the door handles in our house to twisty, round knobs instead of big levers that you pull down on ...
posted by walrus at 9:12 AM on July 23, 2003

walrus - If I had a dog like that, I'd try and train it so that, as soon as I started to rub my sleepy eyes in the morning, it would trot down to the local gourmet coffee shop - with some money in it's mouth and a thermos tied to it's back......and bring me coffee in bed.

kirkaracha - Aggressive parrots that like to eat windshield wipers? (!) I bet you could sell that story to Reader's Digest or, even better, take some footage and go on "America's Best Home Videos". ........Katchiiiiiing!$

don'tevengetmestartedaboutcrows - I
hope you read that story from eatitilive's posted link. I read that over a year ago, and have been looking for the story ever since. Thanks, eatitilive. "Since May, I've been working for the crows, and so far it's the best job I ever had. I kind of fell into it by a combination of preparedness and luck. I'd been casting around a bit, looking for a new direction in my career, and one afternoon when I was out on my walk I happened to see some crows fly by. One of them landed on a telephone wire just above my head. I looked at him for a moment, and then on impulse I made a skchhh noise with my teeth and lips. He seemed to like that; I saw his tail make a quick upward bobbing motion at the sound. Encouraged, I made the noise again, and again his tail bobbed. He looked at me closely with one eye, then turned his beak and looked at me with the other, meanwhile readjusting his feet on the wire. After a few minutes, he cawed and flew off to join his companions. I had a good feeling I couldn't put into words. Basically, I thought the meeting had gone well, and as it turned out, I was right. When I got home there was a message from the crows saying I had the job.

That first interview proved indicative of the crows' business style. They are very informal and relaxed, unlike their public persona, and mostly they leave me alone. I'm given a general direction of what they want done, but the specifics of how to do it are up to me. For example, the crows have long been unhappy about public misperceptions of them: that they raid other birds' nests, drive songbirds away, eat garbage and dead things, can't sing, etc., all of which are completely untrue once you know them. My first task was to take these misperceptions and turn them into a more positive image. I decided the crows needed a slogan that emphasized their strengths as a species. The slogan I came up with was "Crows: We Want To Be Your Only BirdTM." I told this to the crows, they loved it, and we've been using it ever since. "

dmt - I would swear that I've seen Parliaments of Ravens. But I'm not supposed to talk about it.

* looks over shoulder again *

"Caw! Caw Caw! Caw!"

* picks up pace, then begins to run towards phone booth *

posted by troutfishing at 10:56 AM on July 23, 2003

troutfishing: it was a Welsh Border Collie. They're the cleverest breed I've known, but sometimes too clever for their own good. Rolfe, the dog I was talking about, would tear the furniture to pieces if left on his own for too long. Unless we put BBC Hereford & Worcester on the radio. No other program would do: we figured it was the familiar regional accents which made him feel like he had some company.
posted by walrus at 6:06 AM on July 24, 2003

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