When someone mentions animals using tools, you probably think of chimps using blades of grass to get termites to eat, or maybe that dude with the unibrow who mows the neighbor's lawn -- but birds don't often come to mind. And they totally should: One early test of tool use and intelligence in crows had researchers tying a piece of meat to a string, and then tying that string to a stick. To a one, the crows all stood on the stick, grabbed the string, dragged it up, held it with their foot, and repeated the action until they could reach the meat. We know people right now that would fail that test (some of them are us).
Aesop had a story called "The Crow and the Pitcher," which goes like this: Crow wants some water from a pitcher, but he can't reach it, so he drops rocks into it until the water rises enough for him to get a sip. Now, Aesop is not generally considered a scientifically viable resource, at least not until the stuffy science world finally recognizes the validity of Fableology, but a recent test done on rooks (a small type of crow) showed that he may not have been far off. In the study, rooks were placed in a room containing a small pile of pebbles, then given a worm in a tube with water. And, because all good science is based on dickotry, they made sure the worm floated just out of the crow's reach.
Two of the birds took two attempts to figure out the trick, and the other two got it on the first try. Here's the really mind-blowing part: The birds didn't just figure out a crude behavior through trial and error; they dropped in stones only until the water was high enough to reach the worm, and went for the larger pebbles too, understanding that they would displace more water.
Which officially makes them smarter than most community college students
But that's nothing compared to the New Caledonian Crow: In another tube-based experiment, some food was placed in a little basket and then placed in a tube just out of reach of a crow named Betty. She and another crow, Abel, had two pieces of wire they could use to get the basket: One hooked, one straight. Abel grabbed the hooked wire and took off, while Betty took the straight piece, bent the wire into a hook and then used it to pull the basket out of the tube. This was not some trick Betty picked up through training. This was the first time she or Abel had ever encountered wire.
Then she wrapped it in some foil, poured some household chemicals over it and blew open the door.
When scientists attached small cameras to the tails of some New Caledonian crows, they discovered the birds were using sticks to get bugs out of trees. Typical bird stuff, right? Well, they also used stiff leaves and grass to manufacture knives, then used those knives to manufacture other tools. If the crows discovering how to makes shivs somehow doesn't scare you, surely the fact that they have discovered industry is cause to start rolling out the anti-raven zeppelins, right?
And oh god, there's more! NC crows passed yet another test involving hard to reach food. In this one, a crow was placed inside a container with a tiny stick, along with two small cages, one holding a piece of meat just out of reach, and one with a longer stick. The crow wasted no time in grabbing the small stick, using it to extract the long stick, then using the long stick to fish out the meat. Later, scientists locked a crow in a cage with a copy of Myst. Sadly, the game went unbeaten...but only because the crow said it prefers Professor Layton.
Planning sucks, because it always makes us do things, but even we have to admit that it requires a certain level of cognition that transcends what we think of as "animal." And yet crows do it: They frequently "cache" food, socking away reserves in case times get lean (and there are no tube-wielding scientists about to take advantage of). Obviously, this behavior is not the exclusive territory of the bird world's supervillains: Plenty of animals do it, like squirrels, but crows take it several steps further.
Go fuck yourselves, squirrels
Since they are omnivores and opportunists, crows are often thought of as thieves. And hell, that's probably fair. Even crows admit that. And that's why, when crows have food they want to stash, they always keep an eye out for other crows. If another is watching, the crow will pretend to hide the food in their cache, when in reality, they're stashing it in their chest feathers. Crows have learned sleight of hand! Then they fly off and bury it in another cache, far away from prying eyes. Now here's where it gets crazy: The watching crows have then been observed to follow the hiding crows, because they know that sometimes they pull a bait and switch themselves. This has led to a spiraling thief/counter-thief arms race, like a little avian cold war. We can only hope and pray there's a badass crow Petrov out there, watching out for us when this conflict inevitably escalates.
Crows pay attention to how the human world works, and often use it to their advantage: Some have been observed cracking walnuts by dropping them from the exact height needed to bust them open on the pavement. But in other cases, they take gravity out of the equation and just drop the nuts in front of cars, letting us do the work for them. These same crows also memorize the pattern of traffic lights to optimize the exact moment they drop the nuts, but also to make sure they only retrieve them when the light is red and the crosswalk sign is on, so they don't get run over. If you've ever been out driving, you know the latter is a skill that only about 10 percent of the human population has mastered.
"Gotta beat the lunch line at Panda Express!"
Quick quiz: What day of the week do the garbage men come to your block? What day do they service the next block over? And the one after that? And after that? If you don't know the answer to all of those questions, then congratulations! You're not stalking your garbageman. This must be a proud moment for you. But don't get too excited, because it also means you've just been outscored on a test by a bird: Crows have been known to memorize the patterns of garbage trucks so they can get easy access to the sweet, sweet waste contained within. They know they don't have the strength to open the cans, but also that the sanitation workers who open the cans for them inevitably leave some trash behind, so the crows simply memorize a driver's schedule, then follow the trucks to pick out anything tasty.
The nation's secret nuisance: hobo crows
But wait, if they're so fucking smart, why are they eating garbage, huh?
Ha! nevermind. Stupid crows.
You should purchase multiple copies of our book because it's all but inevitable that a crow will take it.