Animal minds Intelligent Design

Bird tool use study provides answers – and questions

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This is the parrot Kea using a ball shaped tool at the Multi Access Box. (Credit: Alice Auersperg)

In “Clever Tool Use in Parrots and Crows”, (ScienceDaily, June 13, 2011) , we learn:

Parrots and Corvids frequently astonish researchers investigating animal intelligence, in particular when it comes to solving technical problems. The New Caledonian crow (Corvus monduloides), for example, manufactures and uses elongated objects such as sticks or pieces of Pandanus leaves as tools to probe for grubs in tree bark and dead wood. The kea (Nestor notabilis), a mountain parrot which is unknown to employ tools in the wild, can accomplish the use of compact objects tools to knock a food reward out of place.
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Just one animal of each species accomplished all four solutions. The most difficult solution for the kea was the use of a stick-like object as a tool. This is not surprising since the kea is not a natural tool user in the wild. Additionally, maneuvering an elongated tool inside a curved beak is a highly complex motor task. “It is therefore all the more impressive that Kermit succeeded to overcome this handicap. The strategy he used gives the strong impression that he acted in a goal directed matter,” states Ludwig Huber.

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In a follow-up study of the same researchers from the University of Vienna which was published in Biology Letters, three further kea learned to insert a stick tool through a hole inside a vertical wall and to poke an out-of-reach food reward behind that wall off its platform after watching some demonstration trials by Kermit. Furthermore they were able to aim the functional tool end at the positive option of two (a baited versus an unbaited box). This is remarkable since kea, which do not use stick-like material during nest construction but breed in simple burrows instead, do not seem to have an ecological predisposition to handle elongated objects.

The researchers hope to address further questions later. Here are a couple:

1. Clearly, highly intelligent animals can learn new skills, unrelated to traditional survival mechanisms. Does that not reduce confidence in claims about what their ancestors “must have” done?

2. Studies are constantly published that claim to show that apes are really smart, thus closely linked with humans. Do these findings suggest that corvids are closer to humans than other birds, or should we regard intelligence as a separate question?

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