Planet of the crows? These birds understand physics
BehaviouralEcologyResearchGroup_crow_Oxford
Image: Behavioural Ecology Research Group, Oxford

Back in 2009 scientists at the University of Oxford revealed that New Caledonian crows can – and will – use tools to get out-of-reach food. The crows didn’t need training to learn how to use the tools, and this was interpreted as evidence for advance cognitive abilities.

But are crows really that smart?

Researchers at the University of Auckland designed an experiment based on Aesop’s fable The Crow and the Pitcher to see whether these birds can solve puzzles.

In the fable a thirsty crow finds a half-full pitcher, but when he puts his beak into the mouth of the pitcher, he can’t reach far down to drink. In its despair, the crow has a bright idea: drop pebbles into the pitcher until the water is high enough to quench his thirst.

The researchers presented two tubes to each crow, one tube was partially filled with sand and the other was partially filled with water; both tubes contained a piece of meat. What did the crows do? They wasted no time and started dropping pebbles into the water-filled tube. Minutes later, they were munching on a tasty morsel. More experiments followed to confirm the results.

In their understanding of physics – how objects displace water – the crows were comparable to children between the ages of 5 and 7, the researchers said. In particular, the crows seemed to understand the different effects of hollow and solid objects, the first time a study had shown that.

Research in animal cognition is shifting from what [Sarah] Jelbert called ‘gee-whiz studies, which just look at whether animals can pass clever-looking tasks,’ to an approach where the patterns of success and failure offer clues to what cognitive mechanisms are at work, explained Sharon Begley in her article for The Washington Post.

Does this mean we have to worry about a possible 'planet of the crows' scenario? Watch the video and judge for yourself.

Sources: The Washington Post and Mail Online