The family of birds known as corvids is well known for what is kindly referred to as character. Put bluntly, these birds, which include crows, ravens, magpies, and jays, can be real jerks. They harass others with their raucous cries. They loot bird feeders and, even worse, bird’s nests. Bullies and thieves pure and simple, corvids may at times be unwelcome, but they are never unnoticed.
However, there is far more to corvids than churlishness. These birds are adaptable and aggressive survivors. Their supercompetitor status is due in part to their camaraderie; most corvids create complex social groups. Their strength in numbers should be apparent to any hawk mobbed out of its territory by marauding crows. But numerical superiority is not their only weapon, nor do they solve every problem through force. Many corvids are cooperative as well as clever, crows especially so.
Crows are famous tool users, but a clip I just saw on Pharyngula raised my respect for these pests to a new level. It seems the August 2002 issue of Science magazine featured an article titled Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows by A. A. S. Weir, J. Chappell, and A. Kacelnik. They reported on a series of experiments in which a captive female crow was taught to fish out a food-containing bucket from a vertical pipe by using a curved tool. This bird then confronted the same challenge armed with only a straight length of wire and spontaneously bent it into a hooked shape! This without previous experience with pliable materials like wire. Incredibly, the crow is said to have repeated this tool-making behavior in nine out of ten subsequent trials.
The clip doesn’t show all ten trials, but one is more than enough to fundamentally alter your preconceptions about avian intelligence. View this amazing movie in Quicktime here.
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