Bird Brains? Think Again

With the ubiquity of cell-phone and security cameras turning us into YouTube Nation, scientists, too, are putting cameras where no lens has gone before: on bird tails. Mounting little video cameras on New Caledonia crows, which are renowned for their use of tools, the researchers have captured footage that will make you think twice before deploying that old epithet, bird-brained.

Studying tool use is all the rage among animal behaviorists because it promises to shed light on animal minds and the origins of the human one. So far, scientists have seen green herons using bait (twigs, berries, discarded crackers . . . ) to attract fish, Egyptian vultures using stones to crack open ostrich eggs and the woodpecker finch of the Galapagos using a splinter or cactus spine to pry grubs out of holes.

And that’s just the birds. Primates other than humans are no slouches in the tool-using sweepstakes, either. Chimpanzees in the Tai Forest of Cote d'Ivoire and Bossou in Guinea use flat stones as anvils on which to crack rock-hard coula nuts with chunks of wood, chimps at Mahale and Gombe in Tanzania fish for termites with strips of bark, and chimps in Sierra Leone place smooth sticks over the thorns of kapok trees so they don’t get pricked while scampering around the treetops.

New Caledonian crows are tool whizzes in the lab, able, for instance, to bend a straight wire into a hook and use it to fetch a bucket containing food. But since the crows are nearly impossible to observe in their native habitat of forested, mountainous areas on their South Pacific island, the obvious question arises: How clever are the birds in their native state rather than the lab?

Enter the tail camera. It does not interfere with movement, and is shed when the birds molt, scientists at Oxford University report this afternoon in the online edition of the journal Science, so what it captures is probably the birds’ natural behavior and not something out of an avian reality show.

Of the 18 video-equipped crows, two adult males used at least three different sticks to poke around in leaf litter and grass, something never before seen. One male used a tool for more than 18 minutes, put it aside a few times to use his beak, carried it with him during a flight, then used it again. “As sticks are plentiful in forest habitats, these observations indicate that crows may keep particularly ‘good’ tools for future use,” write the scientists. Both male crows made tools from dry stems, also something crows had never been seen to use before. Other crows used sticks to reach into beetle burrows and scoop out beetle larvae. Another window into the animal mind.