The Crow; Black. Beaky. Beady. Brilliant ; Intelligence; Betty the Crow Managed to Bend a Piece of Wire to Make a Hook, Which She Then Used to Get Food. Does This Bit of Ingenuity Put Her above Man's Close Relatives? Charles Arthur Reports
Arthur, Charles, The Independent (London, England)
Crows are smart! Or so it would seem, to judge by our reaction to the doings of Betty, the New Caledonian crow that demonstrated on film that it could bend a piece of wire to create a hook, which it then used to get some food. (If you like, you can watch the film for yourself on the internet at the address below.)
What Betty did was quantitatively different from the sort of exploits one sees in most other animals. It is not a pigeon pushing a lever to produce food, or a rat negotiating a maze that it has been shown before, or even a chimpanzee pointing to a picture of something it wants. It is an animal and a tool - the sort of thing we thought we humans excelled at. (Actually, we still do.)
Rudimentary tool use has been reported before: some African chimpanzees have been observed selecting and using stones to open nuts, and monkeys are known to use sticks to fish edible ants and termites out of their nests. But this is different. It's an animal making a tool. Most of all, an animal that had not seen wires being bent to make things before.
"Toolmaking and tool use has always been considered one of the diagnostics of a superior intelligence," said Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University's behavioural ecology research group, which carried out the experiment. "Now a bird is shown to have greater sophistication than many closer relatives of us humans."
Most remarkable was that Betty "had no model to imitate, no opportunity for hook-making to emerge ... she had seen and used supplied wire hooks before but had not seen the process of bending".
So should we now be chummying up to the New Caledonian crows, and forget the dolphins, whales, apes, dogs, cats and other animals in which we have tried to perceive intelligence?
It is very tempting to say yes. But while it is easy to give in to anthropomorphism - assigning human characteristics to animals - it is a temptation that has to be resisted.
Indeed, it is a temptation that Professor Kacelnik has resisted before. Last November a team at the University of Cambridge did an experiment with American scrub jays and found that animals which had themselves stolen items from others jays were more worried about it happening to them: if they were being watched by another bird while they buried their food, they would return and rebury it; those who had no history of thievery left their own buried items alone, watched or not.
What can it mean? One suggestion was that the birds might be "putting themselves in others' shoes" - also known to psychologists as "theory of mind", which only humans definitely exhibit. Professor Kacelnik said: "This doesn't allow us to say that the jays were aware of a causal relationship but they behave as though they are."
However, mind the gap - the one between behaviour and intention. That is where many dreams of finding smart animals disappear. Go back to the 19th century and you will find Clever Hans, the show horse that was claimed to be able to do maths by tapping its foot with the answer when asked a question - say, add five and six. It was exceptionally good at it. Except that one odd thing emerged: if the people watching did not know the answer to the question, Hans would get the answer wrong.
What was going on? Hans was not doing maths; he was reading the subtle body language of the people around him, who would unconsciously relax when he reached the answer they knew was right, and give him a sugar lump. Human "psychics" on premium phone lines do much the same, detecting vocal signs and giving feedback about as useful as Hans's. They get rewarded in hard cash, though.
The question of whether animals "think" is a subtle one. Of course they do. The problem is that they do not think anything like we do - and that makes it hard to …
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Publication information: Article title: The Crow; Black. Beaky. Beady. Brilliant ; Intelligence; Betty the Crow Managed to Bend a Piece of Wire to Make a Hook, Which She Then Used to Get Food. Does This Bit of Ingenuity Put Her above Man's Close Relatives? Charles Arthur Reports. Contributors: Arthur, Charles - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: August 11, 2002. Page number: 19. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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