Here’s an old bit of news, one of the first things that really made me realize that, “Hey — animals are pretty damn smart after all.”
In the Brevia section of the 9 August 2002 issue of Science, Weir et al. report a remarkable observation: The toolmaking behavior of New Caledonian crows. 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. 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.
The original paper is trapped behind a paywall. National Geographic reported on the story when it first appeared, though, and later followed up with a report that crows are actually better at tool-building than chimps. Fortunately, YouTube has video of the crow in question. (YouTube has video of everything.)
Here’s footage of tool-using crows in the wild:
And similar, longer footage:
Where I live, there’s a large population of squirrels and crows. They feed on some of the same stuff. There can be little doubt that the crows keep a close eye on the squirrels, though it’s not particularly clear what they’re watching for. I joke that the crows farm the squirrels. I say this because I frequently see dead squirrels in the street with crows pecking at the corpses. “The crows are just fattening the squirrels so they can herd them into traffic,” I joke to my wife. Yet I can’t help wonder if some of that is not occurring.
Once, driving to work, I came upon a live squirrel standing in the middle of the road. I slowed and waited for it to dart away. “Move, you stupid squirrel!” I shouted. But then I noticed that he was trying to get to the side of the road. But his way was barred by three crows.
Admittedly, I’m reading a hell of a lot into that encounter, but it still startled me.