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Crows create compound tools

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new Caledonian crow with stick tool/Auguste von Bayern

But no, they’re still not people. From ScienceDaily:

An international team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, and the University of Oxford have revealed that New Caledonian crows are able to create tools by combining two or more otherwise non-functional elements, an ability so far observed only in humans and great apes.

The researchers presented eight New Caledonian crows with a puzzle box they had never encountered before, containing a small food container behind a door that left a narrow gap along the bottom. Initially, the scientists left some sufficiently long sticks scattered around, and all the birds rapidly picked one of them, inserted it through the front gap, and pushed the food to an opening on the side of the box. All eight birds did this without any difficulty. In the next steps, the scientists left the food deep inside the box but provided only short pieces, too short to reach the food. These short pieces could potentially be combined with each other, as some were hollow and others could fit inside them.

Without any help or demonstration, four of the crows partially inserted one piece into another and used the resulting longer compound pole to reach and extract the food. At the end of the five-step investigation, the scientists made the task more difficult by supplying even shorter combinable parts, and found that one particular bird, ‘Mango’, was able to make compound tools out of three and even four parts.

Although the authors explain that the mental processes by which the birds achieve their goals have not yet been fully established, the ability to invent a tool is interesting in itself.

The crows’ ability to construct novel compound tools does not imply that their cognitive mechanisms equal those of humans or apes, but helps to understand the cognitive processes that are necessary for physical problem solving. Paper. (open access) – A. M. P. von Bayern, S. Danel, A. M. I. Auersperg, B. Mioduszewska, A. Kacelnik. Compound tool construction by New Caledonian crows. Scientific Reports, 2018; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-33458-z More.

Note the last sentence, distancing the researchers from the sort of activists who claim that human intelligence tests are unfair to apes. Crows, they would wisely have us know, are very good with tools. But they may or may not “think like people” in any other way.

Now, here’s a question: How much of this ability with tools is in response to humans consistently providing a reliable reward system for specific achievements? Nature offers many survival pass-or-fail tests but how often does it offer a graduated system like the New Zealand crow tool studies?

Assume for a moment that, among those life forms that can learn individually (we will call them more “intelligent”), the level of intelligence displayed varies with the need. Performing birds are taught many tricks they would never develop consistently on their own. One thinks of cockatoos riding mini bicycles — toward the offstage hand of the trainer which, of course, holds a treat.

In the absence of opportunity, does the wild cockatoo retain the same ability or, over time, does its ability adjust to circumstances? High intelligence may not be as much of an asset in the bird’s natural environment, which features few structured learning opportunities.

So here’s the dilemma: Trying to assess the bird’s intelligence based only on what it does under wild circumstances may not provide a complete answer to the intelligence question because the bird’s circumstances may be much more limited than its potential intelligence. There is likely an advantage to be a little smarter than other birds but maybe not in being much smarter. If so, there is no pressure for intelligence to increase much over time.

But if humans set up a situation where the bird must display greater intelligence than it usually needs to feed and protect itself, we cannot describe the outcome as simply a product of nature. It is co-produced by humans, with the specific intention of seeing if the birds could achieve the goal.

One senses that, with more research, the whole topic of animal intelligence will become both clearer and more complex at the same time.

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See also: Do crows’ vending machine skills “redefine intelligence”?

Can smart crows tell us how new technology evolved?

and

Animal minds: In search of the minimal self

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2 Replies to “Crows create compound tools

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    I thought the title said Cows. I need to get my eyes checked.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Good question. Compound tool-building kits aren’t common in Nature. Twigs don’t fit together like Tinkertoys or socket wrenches. There might be rare situations when a twig is sticky with sap and happens to grab a leaf, but those situations wouldn’t suggest the concept of a kit.

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