Crows Use Tools

Crows are often vilified, seen in popular as bad omens, sometimes of death. (To be fair to the crow, this is not universal nor has it always been so.) They do not get the credit they deserve for their intelligence, especially tool use. I’m astounded by crows ingenuity when it comes to fashioning and using tools.

Photo of crow on branch
Crow perched on branch. (Photo credit: werner22brigitte)

Until recently we believed tool use to be uniquely human; flattery, really. While we thought it differentiated us from other animals, recent discoveries tell us we are not unique. 

A growing body of literature documents New Caledonian crows’ tool use. Examples include fashioning a hook from a piece of wire to retrieve a container of food from a confined space (this was in an experimental context). Nature published an account of tool use by the Hawaiian Alala crow this week.
Interestingly, this study found that the Alala crows made tools as juveniles without modelling from adults. This raises the question: are the crows instinctually ‘programmed’ to use tools, or are they capable of complex problem solving? This remains to be uncovered. The end result, however, remains the same in that crows enhance their reproductive fitness (more about reproductive fitness later, for now know that it means the ability to live long enough to successfully raise offspring) by utilizing objects found in their environment.

This study also notes that the New Caledonian and Alala crows live in similar island habitats but are distant relatives. If the intermediate relatives don’t use tools; if it is only found on these tips of this particular branch on the shrub of life, it suggests that the trait emerged twice to reach a similar outcome. The authors pose the explanation that the similarities in habitat allowed the tool use trait to develop in both species.

© Peter Roehrich, 2016