As the Crow Reasons

When Shakespeare, Poe, or Hitchcock wanted to create an atmosphere of mystery and foreboding, almost always a dark bird from the crow family would appear. Yet, perhaps we should rethink the way many of us think about the First Bird of Creepy. Researchers continue to discover that one of the smartest bird species around is the New Caledonian crow, a pitch-black bird often referred to as a “qua-qua.”

Science Daily reported on October 24, 2018 that New Caledonian crows can create compound tools. In particular, the New Caledonian crows make the bird equivalent of that mobility grabber or reacher you may have purchased for an aging family member or a hugely pregnant woman who can no longer pick up dropped keys from the floor.

Not impressed by the crows’ tool usage? Consider this: Long ago, when I was an undergraduate student studying anthropology in the late 1990s, tool use and creation was still considered the primary domain of humans, with a few animal-kingdom exceptions. It wasn’t until the 1960s scientists even realized we were not alone in using inanimate objects to solve problems.

Cue Jane Goodall observing David Greybeard insert a blade of grass into a termite hole and voila! Louis Leakey, noted paleoanthropologist and archaeologist, responded to Goodall’s ground-breaking telegram with, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” We all know how that discovery turned out – chimpanzees are still considered animals, but what constitutes “solely” human behavior is still being refined and studied by scientists around the world.

Not even a full century has passed since we finally figured out many animals also make and use tools. What is especially noteworthy about our feathered South Pacific friends is they are the only nonhuman species also known to manufacture hooked tools. Moreover, earlier this summer it was reported that New Caledonian crows have the ability to create mental templates, a feature once thought to be strictly in the human wheelhouse as a form of cultural transmission of social traditions (and not just Susan Stamberg’s propensity to share her mother-in-law’s Cranberry Relish recipe every November).

There are even recent studies challenging that “Crows Rival Monkeys in Cognitive Capacity.” Regardless of who has the most “bandwidth of cognition,” or working memory, the bottom line is human beings have never been the sole progenitors of clever. While for many of us, this is a “no, duh” moment, it reminds me of how I felt sitting in a large lecture hall learning about philosopher Rene Descartes’ thoughts about animals. Of course, animals can feel, think, and, yes, to some extent, reason. Finding empirical data for this intuitive “knowing,” of course, is what science gives us. For some, we may have to reconsider the inaccuracy of “bird brain,” while for the rest of us it is comforting to know we are not alone, and not just in an X-Files kind of way either.

There is a whole world around us full of sentient creatures. It would behoove us to broaden our understanding of not only who and what is intelligent, but also what it truly means to be human.