Oxford Studies: Crows Using Tools

A few years ago, scientists were astonished when they saw their crow, Betty,  invent a new tool. Betty’s ability was first noticed after she and her mate  were shown a clear tube that had a small bucket with food at the bottom. The bucket had a handle, and they were given a hooked wire and also a straight one, then observed to see if their choices for solving the puzzle were based on intelligent choice. Betty chose the hooked wire, and after her mate took it from her, she adapted  by bending the straight wireinto a hook of her own. She repeated this skill 9 out of 10 times.


But this was a captive crow that lived in a lab. What researchers really want to know is how wild crows make and use tools. So, to find out, they trapped wild birds on a tropical island and attached video cameras to them.

The footage from this Crow Cam is not the most beautifully produced nature documentary, but keep in mind, it was shot by wild birds.

One scene is labeled “4:21 pm. Flight.” You see a tree branch and black crow legs. Then the bird takes off. The shaky video shows blurry trees far below, bright sky, and black flashes of wing. You hear wind and cawing.


An Unusual Perspective

Christian Rutz at the University of Oxford is a member of the group that conducted the Crow Cam research.

“Most people struggle to understand what’s going on because it’s a very unusual perspective,” Rutz says. “Everybody would expect the camera to sit on the head. Or possibly on the belly or the back.”

The camera comes down through the feathers and then points forward. The view is like what a quarterback might see as he looks through the legs of the center who is holding the football.

Rutz admits that the odd perspective takes some getting used to. “To have this view where you see a look through the bird’s legs is very unusual,” he says.

They caught 18 wild crows  in New Caledonia and attached the cameras, which weigh less than half an ounce. A timer kept the cameras from filming for a couple days, otherwise they would just record crows trying to tear them off.

When the cameras came on, the team set up a receiver and watched the crow channel.

“We see the live footage coming in on this little camera, so we are live and in color on the wing with the New Caledonian crow,” Rutz says.

Crows Seen Selecting Best Tools

In the online edition of the journal Science, the research team says it got about seven hours of video. The team saw two male crows using sticks and dry blades of grass to probe around on the ground. The birds held the tools in their beaks and even carried them from place to place, suggesting they might hold on to especially “good” tools.