April 20, 2002 | David F. Coppedge

Crows Use Tools in Sequence

51; Watch a one-minute video clip on the BBC News.  A New Caledonian crow in New Zealand figures out how to use three tools in sequence to get at food that is out of reach.  This amazing display of animal intelligence surprised researchers at the University of Auckland who already knew about the legendary problem-solving behavior of corvids, a group that includes crows, rooks and ravens (see 08/11/2009, “Crow Fulfills Aesop Story”).
    The article said, “The crows, which use tools in the wild, have also shown other problem-solving behaviour, but this find suggests they are more innovative than was thought.”  They can even whittle branches into hooks and tear leaves into barbs to reach hard-to-get food.  Until recently, scientists had thought these tool-making skills were restricted to primates.  The article continues, saying that primate mammals now have rivals in tool-making with these birds.  “Experiments have shown that the birds can craft new tools out of unfamiliar materials, as well as use a number of tools in succession.”  The lead author of the paper in PNAS about the experiments said, “Finding that the crows could solve the problem even when they had to innovate two behaviours was incredibly surprising.”
    These observations raise questions about the interpretation of tool use as a measure of intelligence.  Even octopi have been seen “using halved coconut shells as tools, by scooping them from the seabed, galloping off with them and then later using them as a shelter” (see 12/16/2009, bullet 1).  But does this differ in extent or in kind from the work of a hermit crab, or a diatom, or of bees in building a honeycomb? 

When the crow makes a space shuttle to build a space station, we will really take notice.  It’s great fun to watch smart animals, but there is really no comparison, even with chimpanzees.  Think about the tools we take for granted: elevators, automobiles, cell phones, video games, Facebook – these are all light-years beyond pulling a nut out of a cage with a stick.  All things being equal, if we were stuck with beaks and wings, we would probably have computers with peckboards by now and ten thousand ways of interpreting inflections of the word caw.
    In a real sense, all living things display intelligence, in that they use coded information to direct energy for functional work.  This makes sense if the intelligence is derived intelligence from a higher intelligence.  Whether in crows, or conch shells, or bacteria, or dolphins, or humans, that intelligence is parcelled out, or programmed, in each organism appropriate to its needs and purposes.  This top-down view of intelligence is natural to us; we build intelligence into our own robots.  The movies are filled with ideal stories of building a robot with the magical something, that sentience, that would make it like us.  Why would we not be the sentient creations of a creative intelligence?  But accounting for the “emergence” of intelligence from the bottom up, on the other hand, begets a thicket of philosophical problems – not the least of which is how one could ever know that is true.
    Man is the only living being who makes tools to make other tools.  Only man can think abstractly and communicate instructions for making tools verbally, using language, with complex syntax and semantics, to another person who can understand those instructions and carry them out.  Only humans manipulate symbols and mathematical calculations in their minds; humans can envision a product through a complex series of steps, and organize all the materials, with teamwork as required, to bring it to fruition (04/17/2010).  Humans have the upright posture and complex hands to grip things tightly or manipulate fine objects for tool use.  Only humans consider the use of tools for other than bodily needs, like charity or the arts.  Only humans feel guilt, wonder, curiosity about eternity, a need for understanding, a need for significance.  The makeup of our bodies, our brains, our minds, our eyes, our hands, our ears, our faces, our speaking apparatus, our songs, our emotions, and the immaterial selves of which we are each aware, even as our cells recycle themselves throughout our lives – all these observations make sense if we are truly designed for a relationship with our Maker.  It all started there: with intelligence, communication, and personhood: in the beginning was the Word.

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Categories: Amazing Facts, Birds

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