Crows: ‘Tis the Season for Gift Giving and Tool Use

Crows: ‘Tis the Season for Gift Giving and Tool Use

Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis

In this season of feverish gift-giving, it seems timely to remind ourselves of other animals around us who engage in this reciprocal behavior as well. Anyone who has had a cat can most certainly attest to the occasional, unexpected present of a dead rodent or bird delivered to their back porch. Birds like crows have been known to proffer gifts to their family members as well as to other species. In Inside Animal Hearts and Minds, Belinda Recio tells one such story where an eight-year-old girl from Seattle began filling a birdbath with peanuts for some backyard crows to eat:

“Whenever the crows ate them all, one would return with a gift and leave it in the birdbath. Over time, these gifts included rusty metal, sea glass, old buttons, beads, and other tokens of appreciation.”

And as we hurriedly find the tools we need to keep our gifts unseen (for now) from loved ones such as paper, tape, and scissors, crows are also finding and creating their own tools. Reaffirming that corvids are some of the most intelligent and sentient species around, a new study conducted at the University of St. Andrew has discovered how exactly New Caledonian crows are able to produce hooked tools  which help them in catching insects. By comparing the types of hooks fashioned, researchers were able to ascertain that there was a variety of skill level incorporated in fabricating hook structure:

“When birds made controlled cuts with their sharp bills, the resulting hooks were significantly deeper than when they used a ‘sloppier’ alternative method of simply pulling off branches. Careful cutting may leave more wooden material at the tip of the stick from which the hook can subsequently be ‘sculpted’.”

Even more interesting, the older and thought-to-be more experienced crows usually did not engage in the time intensive behavior necessary to make a sharper, curved hook. Scientists hypothesize that that time might be better allocated to other energy-efficient activities for an adult crow and perhaps a longer hook means a higher possibility of tool damage.

What can we take away from this study? Crows, like other nonhuman animals, express their capabilities of senses, imagination, and thought, emotion, practical reasonaffiliation with their and other species, play, and material control over their environment in numerous ways. And perhaps we can even learn how best to direct our most constructive energies this holiday season and for the coming year, along with what tools we need to get there.