Something To Crow About

It is always interesting to see other species using tools to get what they want. This usually means food, of course. It seems reasonable to see primates doing this, but birds are becoming well known for using tools too. New Caledonian crows are the favorites to be tooled up and, of course, we like to test their competence.
The latest test that they’ve had to pass is the one set up by Æsop in the 2nd Century CE. Specifically from the Crow and the Pitcher story in which the canny crow dropped stones into the pitcher to raise the water level up to beak reach level. Taylor et al reported this new study in yesterday’s edition of PLoSone (1).
The participants were wise old birds: Caesar, Laura and Bess, and two young adolescents: Mimic and Pepe. Unfortunately Bess was a bit flighty and Mimic hopped into the breach. Unlike in Æsop’s example, the birds weren’t thirsty. There was some tasty morsel lying tantalizingly on a little raft that was out of reach down a tube.
They very quickly worked out that dropping stones into the tube raised the water level. Moreover, they preferred to use larger stones, which, of course, meant they got the food with fewer repetitions. At this point the bird-psychologists got sneaky and gave them a choice of two tubes with rafts. The first was filled with water and the second was filled with sand, but our crafty crows decided that water was a better bet if they wanted to eat.
By this time our team had got into the habit of using large and heavy objects to get their just desserts.  So what did the psychologists do? They changed the game. They put the food in a deep channel and offered the team thin sticks, thick sticks and a piece of string to dig the food out. The string was picked up and tossed casually aside with proper contempt. They also liked the thinner sticks to the thick ones.
Clearly, our team was well brought up to have delicate and refined table manners.


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