Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

TED2008: Very smart crows.

Joshua Klein studies syntropic species – species that have adapted to coexist with humans. Ever since a cocktail party ten year ago, where a friend was complaining about crows, he’s been fascinated by them, wondering if there’s a way we could coexist with these species in a mutually beneficial fashion.

Crows thrive with human beings – they live everywhere but the Arctic, and rarely more than 5km from humans. “They adapt to live with us, and we try to kill them,” like pigeons and rats. Crows have an intelligence that puts these other species to shame. Confronted with a challenge, they’ll fashion tools to solve it, using their huge brains, which he argues are “proportionate to chimp brains.”

In the video above, crows fashion a piece of wire into a hook to retreive a piece of meat from a tube. This isn’t unknown behavior – in Sweden, crows wait for fishermen to drop lines, then reel them up and eat either fish or the bait. In a student experiment at the University of Washington, students captured crows and put them into cages. The crows followed students for the rest of their careers, and recognized them when they came back to campus years later. Students who study the crows now wear wigs and masks!

In a Tokyo suburb, crows now use cars to crack nuts… then they wait for the lights to change to collect the nuts. Parents are now teaching their young to wait at traffic intersections, and teaching each other this technique. This is a form of cultural learning, something we’re used to seeing in humans.

Klein has been using Skinnerian training to get crows to do something quite absurd – use a vending machine. In early stages, the machine simply provided coins and peanuts. Once the crows got used to it, it gave out only coins – when crows figured out how to knock them into a slot, it gave out peanuts. Eventually, crows figured out how to pick up coins from the ground and get peanuts to come out.

“There are mutually beneficient ways we and crows could live together.” Klein images us working with crows to pick up garbage, or lead search and rescue missions. Chris Anderson brings him back on stage to tell a “crow infidelity story”. Female crows will give an alarm cry, and send their mates out to confront the threat – while distracted, they’ll mate with crows from a neighboring territory, then pretend to sit on the nest innocently when their mates return home.

That level of intelligence seems almost a bit too human…

One Response to “TED2008: Very smart crows.”

  1. ken wood says:

    Enjoyed your crow vending machine.

    Question, in all of your dealings with crows have you ever seen a baby crow?

    I’ve been watching crows for years and never have I seen one. Adolescents, yes.

    kaw kentek3141@hotmail.com

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