Crows Don't Even Need Instructions to Build Tools Anymore

Meet nature’s MacGyvers.

YouTube videos of crows using tools have been a thing for a while, but how smart are these birds, really? According to a new study from Scientific Reports, New Caledonian crows are smart enough that their understanding doesn’t just stop at utilizing tools but actually fabricating them as well, which places them in the company of primates on the intelligence scale. Not bad for some weird-looking evolved dinosaurs, right?

The revelations of this study show that crows can fabricate tools based on understanding the idea of the tool, even without having seen how to construct them. They refer to this as forming a “mental template,” and it requires a deeper understanding of the tool’s function beyond simply understanding its purpose.

Crows learning water displacement

PLOS Media

But just how did scientists determine this? They gave the crows a piece of paper. First, they trained the crows to learn that sticking a piece of paper in a slot would get them the reward of food. They were specific about the size of the paper, so the crows learned to identify what the key to their satisfaction looked like and met those requirements. Finally, they gave them paper that was too big to fit the bill.

The crow quickly puzzled out that it could tear the paper, and once that was settled, it was off to the races. In a piece of footage from the study, you can see Emma the crow using a branch as a fulcrum for bracing the paper so that she can use her beak and free claw to shape it into a perfect food-getter. A side-by-side of Emma’s paper and the paper that she was originally given to her by humans show an incredible similarity — especially considering Emma’s a bird who tore hers from memory.

Side by side of the two papers

So, yeah, crows are wildly smart. For more incredible footage of crows being too smart for their own good, watch the full video featuring Inverse’s science editor Yasmin Tayag.

Subscribe to Inverse on YouTube for more curiosity-sparking journalism.

Related Tags