Crows’ Intelligence

on October 30, 2010

BBC News: “Clever New Caledonian Crows Go To Parents’ Tool SchoolCrows’ remarkable intelligence has been one of our favorite topics over the years (our last update came in April). Here’s the latest.

The hallmark of crow intelligence as it’s been studied so far is the ability of the birds to use tools to get what they want, even using multiple tools in conjunction. Experiments strongly suggest that the birds are not simply wielding the objects willy-nilly and unintentionally using them as tools, but rather that the birds understand them as tools. BBC News reports that one widely studied species of crow “make the most complex tools of any animal yet studied apart from humans.”

One widely studied species of crow “make the most complex tools of any animal yet studied apart from humans.”

Much of the previous work researching crows occurred at the University of Auckland, where scientists have now turned to studying how the crows learn to use tools in the first place. A team led by psychologist Jenny Holzhaider traveled to the island of Maré in New Caledonia to observe New Caledonian crows in their natural habitat.

There, the researchers were surprised to find that the adult crows take the young ones to “tool school” where the adults make and use tools but let the young ones “play” with the tools as well. Interestingly, the behavior seems rooted in the tight family structure the crows have. Thus, the secret to New Caledonian crow tool-making and use is that they learn it from their parents, not from their peers.

“[The crows] social system is based on high quality relationships with a small number of crows, especially immediate family,” explained team member Gavin Hunt, who added that the youth “closely follow and watch their parents’ behaviour, are taken to tool using sites, and are ‘allowed’ to use the tools of their parents.”

Crows aren’t the only intelligent flying creature making news this week, however. Scientists at the University of London have discovered that bees rival computers at certain complicated mathematical tasks. The researchers studied bees’ interactions with artificial, computer controlled flowers to study how the bees navigate. As it turns out, the bees can quickly calculate the path that will help them visit multiple flowers with the least amount of flying (to conserve energy)—even though computers spend days solving similar problems. “We need to understand how they can solve the Travelling Salesman Problem [a mathematics puzzle] without a computer. What short-cuts do they use?” one scientist asked.

Both bees and crows offer exciting examples of God’s brilliant designs at work in the wild. They also show that it isn’t just apes who have sophisticated smarts, which disrupts the evolutionary caricature of them as our “almost human” relatives.

Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, the New York Times, or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us.

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