12 Feb 2019

The New Caledonian crow is way smarter than we thought

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:27 pm on 12 February 2019

The New Caledonian crow is a clever wee so-and-so. 

Nearly two decades ago it first showcased the ability to use tools to solve problems.

Now a new study from researchers at Auckland University suggests these birds also have the ability to create and execute plans to use these tools effectively.

Dr Alexander Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology and joined Afternoons to explain how the scientists carried this experiment out, and what the implications are in understanding more about animal intelligence.

Taylor’s fascination with New Caledonian crows stems from when he was studying animal behaviour at Oxford in 2002. He saw a video of a crow bending a piece of wire to make it into a hook and using that hook to fish a bucket containing food out of a tube.

“As a young student, that really caught my imagination and I was just fascinated with what was going through this crow’s mind," he tells Jesse Mulligan. 

"It turned out that there were a couple of scientists at Auckland University, Gavin Hunt and Russell Gray, who were already working out of New Caledonia and studying the crows. That’s how I ended up coming over to Auckland to work with them.”

He says that while a bird making a tool out of wire might seem quite simple, in the animal kingdom its unprecedented.

“Not even chimpanzees, our closest relatives, have shown these kinds of behaviours in the wild.”

Taylor and his team’s research has focused on the planning abilities of the crows. He says the action of bending a piece of wire into a hook suggested the crow had a plan and this has fascinated him and his team.

“We wanted to know whether the crows use online planning, which is quite a simple form of planning, or whether they pre-plan.”

He gives the analogy of a game of chess where beginners tend to react to their opponents moves – which is online planning. More experienced players realise there’s a huge advantage to gain by planning one, two, or three moves ahead which is pre-planning.

“It was that really key difference between online planning and pre-planning that we wanted to test between in our latest study. The reason we’re really excited is because we’ve actually got some really nice evidence the crows can pre-plan, they’re actually planning three behaviours into the future.”

Their study differed from others by using screens so that the crows could only see one stage of the problem at a time.

“What they had to do was to take those mental images of each aspect of the problem and put them together into a sequence of behaviours despite only seeing one stage at a time. And that’s how we were able to get that difference between online planning and pre-planning.”

“If you’re just kind of reacting to a change you’ve made in the world through online planning, then you should fail at that kind of problem because you’re going to make a mistake early on about where to go on the task. Whereas, if you’re really pre-planning, and saying ‘OK there’s a long tool here, and I need it to take to this tube to get a stone, and I take this stone to get the food’. If you’ve figured that all out beforehand with pre-planning then even though the different steps of the stage are hidden, you’re still going to be able to solve the problem. That’s what we were able to show with the crow.”

Taylor says that although the problem may seem simple, it’s taken more than ten years to get to the stage where they can test between the different forms of planning. The team must also get wild crows, bring them into the aviary and build a relationship with them to the point they can take on these problems.

A juvenile New Caledonian crow.

A juvenile New Caledonian crow. Photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

He says New Caledonian crows aren’t only clever birds. The native Kea could be just as intelligent, if not more intelligent. Scientists are currently looking into the birds but Taylor says they haven’t found a way to prove their intelligence just yet.

“With the New Caledonian crows, it’s a little bit easier because they use tools in the wild so we can kind of curate tool problems which require lots of behaviours and test them there.”

With the Kea, it’s a little bit different. He says there’s some indication they might use tools a little bit in the wild, but being able to build up the expertise to work with another bird is the challenge. Especially with a mischievous one that likes to steal.

Next, Taylor and his group would like to look at different kinds of planning and whether the New Caledonian crow can handle them. There’s evidence chimpanzees are terrible at planning for two different futures, for instance, taking sun cream and an umbrella, so they want to look at whether crows fare any better.

“They’re right at the cutting edge here in terms of what they’ve shown for animal planning, and now we get to ask questions that no one has been able to successfully ask before.”

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