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People used to think birds were rather stupid with ‘bird brain’ still being a term used to describe a person of little intelligence. However, it turns out that some of our feathered friends may be cleverer than we thought, in particular corvids who have surprised scientists with their ability to mimic human speech, employ complex reasoning and make and use tools.

Crow
Image credit: Credit: Sarah Jelbert; CC-BY

Corvids are a group of birds that includes crows, ravens, jackdaws, magpies and jays who have all demonstrated some remarkable feats of memory and the ability to plan ahead.

Jays, for example, are well known for stashing food and you may have seen them burying nuts in your garden during cold winter months. However, western scrub jays take this habit one step further.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge showed that burying food was done not simply because it was cold but that the jays were actually planning ahead, something that it was previously thought only humans could do.

The research to discover this behaviour was conducted by giving jays the chance to store food in a room where they were not being fed or a room where they were being fed. The experiment concluded that the jays would time and time again pick the room where they were not being fed to hide food.

Other scientists have observed that if western scrub jays are being watched when stashing food they will make some ‘fake hides’ putting their beak in the ground but not actually burying the food. They will also re-hide food again and it has been shown that they can remember the locations of up to 200 food caches.

In 2002 a New Caledonian crow called Betty demonstrated a talent for using tools that challenged the chimpanzee’s reputation for being the most proficient toolmaker in the animal kingdom.

Betty, one of a pair of crows kept at the University of Oxford made a hook from a piece of wire to retrieve a bucket of food from the bottom of a plastic tube. Her skills came to light quite by chance when the two crows were offered the choice of a straight piece of wire or a hooked wire to get at the bucket. When the male bird flew off with the hook Betty bent the tip of the straight wire to make a replacement.

To prove that this wasn’t just a fluke, the scientists presented Betty with more lengths of straight wire and proved that she was able to fashion a hook to retrieve the bucket 9 out of ten times.

Although New Caledonian crows had been known to make hooks from objects they were familiar with in their home on the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia to extract insects and bugs from cracks and crevices, this was the first time a crow had been observed making a tool from an unfamiliar object.

In 2014 a team of researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand showed that crows were able to displace water. In a series of tests reminiscent of Aesop’s fable The Crow and the Pitcher the crows were offered scraps of meat placed just out of their reach floating in a series of tubes that were part-filled with water. The crows successfully worked out that by using heavy, solid objects they would be able to reach the meat faster.


They also preferred to drop objects in tubes where they could access the food more easily picking out tubes with higher water levels.

Researchers at the University of Seattle showed that not only do crows not forget a face but will hold a grudge for a number of years.

The scientists who trapped and banded crows were dive-bombed and scolded by an angry mob from above. To ensure that crows were responding to their faces and not their clothes the team took to wearing masks including those that resembled a caveman and Dick Cheney.

One researcher ventured out in a mask he’d started wearing five years earlier and was attacked by about 50 crows who apparently had borne a grudge despite not having seen the mask for a year.

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