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Crafty crows: master tool users from the tropics

Hands-on at the exhibit

  • Can you extract plastic insects from holes drilled into a wooden log using a crow tool? Wear virtual-reality goggles to get a crow’s-eye view of the action!
  • Make a hook tool from plant materials, just like wild New Caledonian crows do. Test how efficient the tool is by extracting a bug or badge from a tube – if you get it, it’s yours to keep.
  • In a group of crow species, spot the one that is a highly-skilled tool user. You will get some hints what to look out for, but you will then make your own scientific discovery!

Find out more

The ability to use tools is extremely rare across the animal kingdom, which is surprising, given how useful this behaviour is for us humans. We are studying animals that have the capacity to use basic foraging instruments. But, rather than following the traditional approach of investigating our primate cousins, we work on tool-using birds.

Crows living on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia have long baffled scientists with their remarkable tool behaviour. Why do they, but apparently no other members of the crow family, use sticks to winkle insects from deadwood and vegetation? There are over 40 species of crows worldwide, and we wondered whether there might be undiscovered tool users amongst them.

We began to search for species that look similar to the New Caledonian crow, whose unusually straight bill is perfectly-adapted for wielding stick tools. It seemed to us that the Hawaiian crow – one of the world’s rarest birds – is a particularly promising candidate. Our hunch was right: we have recently discovered that Hawaiian crows are, indeed, exceptionally good at using foraging tools, and deserve to join the exclusive tool-user club. Both the New Caledonian crow and the Hawaiian crow evolved on remote tropical islands that lack woodpeckers and ferocious predators – perfect conditions, apparently, for canny crows to develop impressive tool-use skills.

Our research on crows is providing valuable glimpses of the ecological conditions under which animals evolve the ability to use tools. Humans are no doubt impressive tool users, but so are some other animals.

Find out more at the ʻAlalā Project.

Presented by: University of St Andrews and San Diego Zoo Global.