Those clever crows Animal intelligence: Some bird brains have room for higher-order thinking.

February 05, 1996

NEWSFLASH: CROWS USE TOOLS! Report stirs scientific debate!

For many people the most interesting thing about a report of tool-making crows on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia is that it is news at all. After all, many people have seen other crows do clever things. Recently, in response to the news from New Caledonia, a man recounted on National Public Radio how he had been used by a cunning crow, who had waited until just the right moment to drive a bewildered rabbit into the path of his oncoming car.

Scientific orthodoxy long maintained that one crucial difference between animals and humans is that humans can envision a tool, fashion it and then use it. But evidence to the contrary -- from birds that drop shellfish on rocks to crack them open to chimpanzees who use twigs to dig termites from their mounds -- has long since been eroding that view. Gavin R. Hunt's findings are significant because they constitute the first evidence in the wild that animals not only use tools, but also invent them.

According to Mr. Hunt, a species of crow on New Caledonia makes and uses two types of tools, a hooked twig stripped of bark and leaves and a leaf chiselled into a tapered, barbed shape. Both tools help the birds pry out insects and other small prey from trees and logs.

Mr. Hunt maintains that these devices have three features that distinguish them from more primitive animal tools: They are distinctly different, each type of tool is highly standardized and they involve the use of hooks. That's impressive: Tool-use among humans did not get to that level of sophistication until relatively late in the evolutionary process.

Those clever crows may be forcing scientists to rethink the distinctions between humans and animals. But as any pet owner can attest, that process is long overdue. Bird brains -- at least some of them -- may hold more wonders than we previously thought possible. Likewise, animal intelligence is an area ripe for exploration unfettered by preconceived notions.

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