Corvids: An Australian export?

I read an interesting article about corvids in Australia at The Conversation. I don’t like to re-post full articles so, I will post a snippet and a link…

Corvids feature in the cave art of early humans. Their voices and actions reportedly stimulate human language and culture. Some research suggests that when humans interact with social crows, the things they see and learn can inspire their own rapid cultural evolution. Crows also seem to do things that people do (“talk” to each other, steal and hide things, use tools, “tease” other species, play), so it’s possible we’re all learning from one another.

You can read the whole article here.

Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)

Copyright © 2012 Corvid Corner. All rights reserved.


A member of the corvidae family, Clark’s Nutcracker is a lovely bird slightly smaller than the Spotted Nutcracker. It eats mostly seeds from the pine tree. And it has a pouch in the floor of it’s mouth in front of its tongue (a sublingual pouch — See below) which can hold up to 95 pinyon pine seeds (depending on the seed this number can vary from 50 to 150).

Sublingual pouch


To put this in perspective, 95 Pinyon pine seeds weigh up to 13% of the total weight of the bird!! How neat is that? They have a pouch in their mouth where they can store and carry almost 15% of their own weight! The Clark’s Nutcracker also has a “long, heavy, sharp bill… used for hacking open green, closed cones, many of which are covered with pitch. Nutcrackers can open the green cones of most of the pines. The bill is also used to thrust seeds into the substrate with strong japes of the head and neck. As their name implies, nutcrackers can open thick-hulled pine seeds by crushing them in their bills.” (( Most jays must wait for the cones to open naturally, but the Clark’s nutcracker (and the pinyon jay) are able to open the tightly closed green cones. Lucky for them, they don’t have to wait for a good seed.

In a year with a heavy cone crop a single nutcracker can cache between 22,000 and 33,000 seeds in over 7,000 individual cache sites (Vander Wall & Balda, 1977). Birds may place between one and 14 seeds per cache. Birds continue caching until the crop is depleted or snow covers the caching areas (Vander Wall & Balda, 1977). Possibly, birds curtail caching after snow remains on the ground because to cache in these conditions would reveal cache location by their foot prints left in the snow. ((Balda, Russell P. and Kamil, Alan C. Linking Life Zones, Life History Traits, Ecology, and Spatial Cognition in Four Allopatric Southwestern Seed Caching Corvids))

Copyright © 2012 Corvid Corner. All rights reserved.


The Clark’s Nutcracker possesses a number of abilities and physical attributes that help them thrive. They have excellent spatial memory abilities which allow these clever corvids to “learn and generalize geometric rules about the placement of landmarks.” They use the landscape and even the sun (as a compass) to help them cache seeds. Their strong beaks help them crack open seeds, hence their name. Their long, pointed wings help them for strong flight to great distances. They can cache up to 22 km (a little over 13 and a half miles!). The Clark’s Nutcracker “can carry seeds 1,900 m up the side of the Peaks.” ((Balda and Kamil)) They use ‘bill-clicking’ which is the rapid opening and closing of the mandibles, to help determine if the seed is full as well as determine the thickness of the seed coat which saves time when seeds are abundant in the spring and summer.

Copyright © 2012 Corvid Corner. All rights reserved.


So intelligent are they, the Clark’s Nutcracker can discern between pinyon pine seeds that have nut meet and those that are empty just by observing the color of the shell. WOW! Corvids are so intelligent!



Black Storm by Larry Toogood

A fantastic short animated film all about the dynamics between crows and humans. I won’t try to articulate a description, I’ll just copy and paste the original from the maker.

What is Black Storm?

Black Storm is an animated short film set in Malaysia, about a man and a crow who must learn to trust each other and unite their tribes.

This amazing short film brings together what a lot of us already know, that crows are extremely intelligent birds.

They have extraordinary memories. They have good tool-making skills, can read numbers, judge threat levels and communicate in more than 20 different caw sounds.

If you have ever wondered about the cunning thinking of a crow then you are sure to enjoy the story of “Black Storm” – the Island of Katuki is threatened with deforestation and if the crows and humans can’t settle their differences they are doomed to die apart.

DESCRIPTION of the plot…

Driven from their homes, if they can’t learn to live together, they’re doomed to die apart…

The fable takes place on the majestic tropical island of Katuki. But when the food runs out, this island sanctuary becomes a battleground. In this place, the only currency is whatever will keep you from going hungry, and the only allies you can afford are your own people.

Jungle Crow Leader Storm was born into power, and acts like it. He’s a talented mimic, skilled with locks, brave beyond all reason, and has been crossed by only one group: the humans. They stole his flock’s historical home and left them homeless for weeks. Now he intends to get his fair share of that land by any means. However, Storm may yet need their help in ways he never expected…

Village Leader Abraham is the wise grandfather of Katuki. He’s watched his village be forced from their ancestral lands, and now looks on as his people barely scrape by. Plagued by constant attacks on their crops by the savage crows, he knows his advisers are right when they tell him that guns are the only solution. But in the back of his mind, Abraham wonders if there could ever be another way…

“It’s an animated short film that explores tolerance and mutual understanding, underpinned by an ecological concern. With a hint of Avatar about it, this story of a man and a crow is a complex narrative that turns and develops nicely. The team is very experienced. The storyboards are truly excellent; this would make an excellent family animation.“

– New Zealand Film Commission  

UPDATE: This short animated film has been launched on You can watch it here.

Lecture on Crows by John Marzluff

You might have heard of this fellow, John Marzluff. He is a professor at the University of Washington who studies crows. He is the one who led the research with the ability of facial recognition by crows. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here. Yes, crows can recognize a person’s face and teach other crows to learn it as well. They have an elaborate way of communicating, one we cannot comprehend YET! =)  John Marzluff has written a few crow related books (one will be released in June of this year!). Here is a lecture on crows I found…check it out…

The Crow and the Pitcher more than fable?

The Crow and the Pitcher, originally uploaded by AnnaleeBlysse.

Scientists believe the fable of the crow and the pitcher might have been fairly accurate given the new research showing rooks using rocks to raise the level of water where a worm resided… to bring the worm up to their level. ((

They are such incredibly intelligent birds. The other animal who showed fluid mechanics was the orangutan. I will bet corvids are just as smart if not smarter than many of the primates.

You can read more about the studies here.

The Revered, Reviled Crow Clan by Howard Youth

I read an excellent article about corvids from their habitat to myths and legends about them in the May/June 2001 issue of Zoogoer. I think it is worth the read. Here is an excerpt:

For centuries, a dark specter haunted the bloody battlefields of Europe. Waiting to feast on the dead, common ravens lined up at bloody clashes between invaders and invaded, tribes and kingdoms. War-weary observers could not ignore the jet-black scavengers, with their four-foot-wide wingspreads and cross-shaped flight profiles. Ravens, not surprisingly, were branded harbingers of bad luck, or death.

Away from the carnage, common ravens (Corvus corax) also coasted into folklore, legend, and language, strongly hinting that these creatures and their 100-plus brethren in the family Corvidae are not your average birds. Two ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory), rode the broad shoulders of the Norse god Odin. In Inuit legend, the raven became creator and trickster. In the Bible, Noah sent not only a dove but also a raven to seek land, as did many ancient mariners. Tame ravens still stroll within the Tower of London’s walls, where for centuries they’ve been sequestered as guardians against invasion.

One reason why ravens, crows, jackdaws, rooks, magpies, treepies, choughs, nutcrackers, and jays stand out is that they have above-average brains—proportionately, they possess the largest cerebral hemispheres of the feathered set. Plucky, crafty, curious, social, vocal, and adaptable, corvids, as family members are known, are among our most familiar yet enigmatic neighbors. On all continents save Antarctica, they flourish in backyards and wilderness, although more than 20 species barely hang on within shrinking habitats. Ethiopia’s thick-billed raven (Corvus crassirostris), bigger than a red-tailed hawk, is the world’s largest songbird, while the dun-colored Hume’s ground-jay (Pseudopodoces humilis) of the Tibetan plains is the smallest family member. In between lies a broad spectrum of glossy, splashy, and plume-tailed characters.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Spontaneous Metatool Use by New Caledonian Crows

Copyright © 2007 Elsevier Ltd All rights reserved.


Spontaneous Metatool Use by New Caledonian Crows

Alex H. Taylor1, , , Gavin R. Hunt1, Jennifer C. Holzhaider1 and Russell D. Gray1, ,

1Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1142, New Zealand

Received 27 June 2007;

revised 24 July 2007;

accepted 25 July 2007.

Published online: August 16, 2007.

Available online 16 August 2007.


A crucial stage in hominin evolution was the development of metatool use—the ability to use one tool on another [1] and [2]. Although the great apes can solve metatool tasks [3] and [4], monkeys have been less successful [5], [6] and [7]. Here we provide experimental evidence that New Caledonian crows can spontaneously solve a demanding metatool task in which a short tool is used to extract a longer tool that can then be used to obtain meat. Six out of the seven crows initially attempted to extract the long tool with the short tool. Four successfully obtained meat on the first trial. The experiments revealed that the crows did not solve the metatool task by trial-and-error learning during the task or through a previously learned rule. The sophisticated physical cognition shown appears to have been based on analogical reasoning. The ability to reason analogically may explain the exceptional tool-manufacturing skills of New Caledonian crows.

Results and Discussion

Metatool use was one of the major innovations in human evolution [1] and [2]. The use of simple stone tools to make more complex tools may reflect the “cognitive leap” that initiated technological evolution in hominins [2]. Metatool use has three distinct cognitive challenges. First, an individual must recognize that tools can be used on nonfood objects. This recognition may require analogical reasoning abilities [2]. Second, an individual must initially inhibit a direct response toward the main goal of obtaining food, a reaction that both children and primates find difficult to suppress [8], [9] and [10]. Third, an individual must be capable of hierarchically organized behavior [11] and [12]. That is, they must be able to flexibly integrate newly innovated behavior (tool→tool) with established behaviors as a subgoal in achieving a main goal (tool→tool→food). Such flexible, hierarchical organization of behavior has been suggested to follow a recursive pattern and to require cognitive processing similar to language production [13].

In early hominins, the transfer of a thrusting percussion technique from breaking nuts to knapping cutting tools was likely part of longer behavioral sequences in which tool materials and food were acquired separately [2]. Metatool use, therefore, probably involved considerable behavioral organization in space and time. Tests for metatool use in great apes and monkeys have typically followed an experimental design where a small stick can be used to retrieve a nearby longer stick that can then be used to gain otherwise inaccessible food. The close proximity of the tools and the food in these tests eliminates tool transport and facilitates assessment of the relevant requirements of the task. It also makes it relatively easy to accidentally touch the long tool with the short tool in normal exploratory behavior, and thereby chance upon the solution. Increased distance between tools and the food source has been suggested to increase the cognitive demands of a tool task [3] and [14].

Striking evidence is now emerging that Corvidae have convergently evolved cognitive abilities that rival those of our primate relatives [15]. Evidence for convergent evolution include the impressive tool-manufacturing skills of New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) [16], [17], [18], [19], [20] and [21] and complex physical cognition in non-tool-using rooks (Corvus frugilegus) [22]. To test whether New Caledonian crows (crows hereafter) are capable of metatool use, we used an experimental design similar to the standard design used with great apes [3] and [4]. We modified the design to give a greater degree of spatial and temporal separation between the tools and the food. In our experiments, food (meat) was placed in a 15 cm deep horizontal hole 1.75 m away from two identical “toolboxes” (Figure 1). The front of each toolbox consisted of vertical bars that allowed a crow to insert its bill but not its head. We placed an 18 cm long stick tool 4 cm inside one toolbox. This tool was long enough to extract the meat but out of reach of a crow’s bill. In the other toolbox, we placed a stone in a similar position. The positions of the stone and tool were randomized between the toolboxes across trials. Presenting both a relevant and an irrelevant object controlled for random probing of the toolboxes leading to a solution by trial and error. In front of the toolboxes, we placed a 5 cm long tool (Figure 1). This tool was too short to extract the meat but could be used to extract the long tool from the tool box. Successful completion of the task required a crow to use the short stick to extract the long stick from the box and then transport the long stick to the hole and extract the food.

Figure1 The Metatool-Use Task The experimental apparatus consists of a long, functional tool in one toolbox, a stone in the second toolbox, a short, nonfunctional tool in front of both toolboxes, and a 15 cm deep horizontal hole in which meat was placed. The distance between the hole and the toolboxes was 1.75 m but is reduced in the image to save space.
Figure1 The Metatool-Use Task The experimental apparatus consists of a long, functional tool in one toolbox, a stone in the second toolbox, a short, nonfunctional tool in front of both toolboxes, and a 15 cm deep horizontal hole in which meat was placed. The distance between the hole and the toolboxes was 1.75 m but is reduced in the image to save space.

The experimental apparatus consists of a long, functional tool in one toolbox, a stone in the second toolbox, a short, nonfunctional tool in front of both toolboxes, and a 15 cm deep horizontal hole in which meat was placed. The distance between the hole and the toolboxes was 1.75 m but is reduced in the image to save space.

All seven crows developed metatool use and extracted the food (Figure 2). Icarus, Luigi, and Gypsy spontaneously produced the correct behavioral sequence in the first trial (Gypsy’s and Icarus’s first trial are shown in Movies S1 and S2, respectively, in the Supplemental Data available online). This was despite the requirement to transport tools and the difficulty in obtaining a tool from behind the bars. Joker also successfully solved the problem on the first trial, but made the error of taking the short tool to the hole after a first attempt at extracting the long stick (Figure 2). Colin, Lucy, and Ruby first extracted food in the 5th, 19th, and 23rd trial, respectively. Significantly, the first use of the short stick by six of the seven crows was either successful metatool use or a failed attempt to extract the long tool. This performance is comparable with that of the great apes [3] and [4]. In the first trial, five out of six gorillas and three out of five orangutans used a tool as a metatool [3]. However, only three out of five chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) developed metatool use, and these individuals first made the error of attempting to use the small, nonfunctional stick tool to obtain the food [4]. Monkeys have been less successful. One out of two capuchins (Cebus apella) performed at a similar level to gorillas and developed metatool use on the first trial [5]. In another study, only one out of six capuchins used tools as metatools and this individual succeeded in less than 50% of trials [7]. Despite receiving considerable training on tool use, Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) did not attempt metatool use on the first trial and required more than 50 trials to achieve a 75% success rate [6].

Figure2 Trial-by-Trial Description of Experiment One The long, functional tool was in a toolbox and the short, nonfunctional tool was in front of the toolboxes.
Figure2 Trial-by-Trial Description of Experiment One The long, functional tool was in a toolbox and the short, nonfunctional tool was in front of the toolboxes.

Initial use of the nonfunctional tool in an attempt to get the food frequently occurs in primate metatool-use studies [3] and [4]. In our experiment, only Lucy made the error of first taking the nonfunctional stick to the hole. Four crows (Ruby, Joker, Luigi, and Colin) occasionally attempted to use the nonfunctional tool to get food in later trials, but only after unsuccessfully trying to extract the long tool with the short tool. These crows appeared to have had difficulty extracting the long tool from the barred toolbox. They may have then taken the nonfunctional short tool to the hole because of problems inhibiting tool use when no other course of action was available.

The task could have been solved by trial-and-error learning if crows had initially used tool-related exploratory behavior toward the toolboxes and stumbled across the solution. However, the crows did not randomly probe the toolboxes. The first toolbox probed by all seven crows was the one with the long stick rather than the stone. In fact, only Ruby ever probed the toolbox containing the stone; she did so once, several trials after successful metatool use. This suggests that metatool use did not develop through trial-and-error learning during the experiment. The use of a previously learned behavioral rule by the crows is also unlikely. Familiarization training with the apparatus did not involve metatool use, and we have never seen this behavior in the wild in more than 3 years of observing crows on Maré. The spontaneous development of metatool use therefore required cognition more complex than simple learning mechanisms.

One possibility is that the crows solved the metatool task by analogical reasoning. Successfully constructing an analogy requires that an individual maps experience from previous problems onto a structurally similar, novel problem [23], [24] and [25]. One language-trained chimpanzee has been reported to have solved both figural and conceptual analogy problems [26]. The crows may have solved the metatool-use task by perceiving the shared causal relationship between the task and normal tool use, namely that a tool can access out of reach objects. Children’s performance with causal analogies depends in part on knowledge of the relevant causal properties of the task [27], [28] and [29]. Causal understanding is indicated by the spontaneous correction of mistakes in an appropriate, goal-directed way [30] and [31]. If the crows had understood the relevant causal relationship in this experiment, we would expect them to use this knowledge to avoid making errors based on tool type.

To see whether crows were sensitive to the causal aspects of the food extraction task, we carried out a second experiment where the positions of the short and long tools were reversed. The long tool was now freely available so that metatool use was not required to extract the food. In the first block of five trials, all six crows tested initially inserted the long tool into the toolbox containing the short tool, but this generally occurred in the first block of five trials (Figure 3). This behavior usually lasted momentarily and there was often no contact with the short tool. In the only exception, Lucy extracted the short stick from the toolbox in her first trial but did not take it to the hole. No crow took the short stick to the hole. The insertion of the long tool appeared to be due to the difficulties in deviating from habitual behavior [32]. The crows may have routinely probed the toolbox with the long tool because they had been rewarded in the previous ten metatool-use trials for probing the box. The crows rapidly rectified this mistake, suggesting that they were sensitive to the causal relationship between the tools and the final goal.

Figure3 Trial-by-Trial Description of Experiment Two The positions of the long and short tools were reversed; the short, nonfunctional tool was in a toolbox and the long, functional tool was in front ofthe toolboxes. Icarus did not participate in these trials.
Figure3 Trial-by-Trial Description of Experiment Two The positions of the long and short tools were reversed; the short, nonfunctional tool was in a toolbox and the long, functional tool was in front ofthe toolboxes. Icarus did not participate in these trials.

Our findings provide experimental evidence that New Caledonian crows can spontaneously solve a metatool task. On their first attempt to solve the problem, six out of seven crows used the short tool to probe the toolbox with the long tool. This appropriate spontaneous behavior and the quick correction of causal errors suggest that the crows used analogical reasoning to solve the metatool task. Analogical reasoning may be the crucial factor in the exceptional tool-manufacturing skills of New Caledonian crows.

Experimental Procedures

We carried out the experiments with seven wild New Caledonian crows captured on Maré Island, New Caledonia. We housed up to three crows at a time in a 2-cage outdoor aviary at the location of capture; each cage was 4 m × 2 m × 3 m high. After capture, a crow was left to get accustomed to the aviary and human presence for 3 days before the experimental procedures began. During the experimental work, crows were held in one cage and the experimental apparatus was in the second cage; crows could not see between the cages. All crows were released at their site of capture after the experiment.

Each crow was given 10 familiarization trials in each of the following tasks before testing began: (1) extracting meat from the 15 cm deep horizontal hole with an 18 cm long stick that we provided; (2) withdrawing an 18 cm long stick from the toolbox and extracting meat from the hole (one end of the stick extended out between the bars, making it easy for crows to see and extract it); and (3) using a nonfunctional 5 cm long stick to try and extract meat from the 15 cm deep hole. The familiarization trials were carried out in blocks of five, in the following sequence: (1), (2), (3), (1), (2), and (3).

Before the first trial in the testing phase, each crow was given a 5 min familiarization period with the experimental setup without the short tool present. The short tool was placed in front of the toolboxes at the start of all trials. The trials were 10 min long and in blocks of five. To ensure that birds were exposed to the problem for standardized blocks of time, the position of the short stick was reset if a bird moved and then discarded it before the 10 min trial period ended. Testing continued until a crow had solved the task in 80% of trials across two consecutive 5-trial blocks or until 35 trials had been completed.


The authors thank W. Wardrobert and his family for access to their land. This work was supported by a Commonwealth Doctoral Scholarship (to A.H.T.) and a grant from the New Zealand Marsden Fund (to G.R.H. and R.D.G.). We are grateful to M. Corballis for helpful advice about the methodology and V. Ward for drawing Figure 1. Our work was carried out under University of Auckland Animal Ethics Committee approval R375.


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Supplemental Data

(5290 K)

Movie S1. Gypsy’s Successful First Metatool-Use Trial. This movie shows Gypsy’s successful first metatool-use trial (see Block 1: Trial 1 in Figure 2). Gypsy picks up the short, nonfunctional tool in front of the two toolboxes and immediately uses it to extract the long, functional tool. Gypsy then extracts the meat with the long tool.

(9214 K)

Movie S2. Icarus’s Successful First Metatool-Use Trial. This movie shows Icarus’s successful first metatool-use trial (see Block 1: Trial 1 in Figure 2). Icarus picks up the short, nonfunctional tool in front of the two toolboxes and immediately uses it to extract the long, functional tool. Icarus then extracts the meat with the long tool.