New Caledonian crows use mental pictures to spin twigs into hooks and make other tools, according to a provocative study that indicates the notoriously smart birds pass successful designs to future generations, a hallmark of civilization.
“Put simply, crows can reverse engineer tool layouts using just a mental image of the tool.”
The effort was hailed as evidence that the New Caledonian crow could devise new tools immediately, a rare ability among non-human creatures.
However, a study published a couple of years afterwards discovered that over a dozen wild-caught crows also broke off small branches and fashioned them into miniature hooks with their beaks, leading some investigators to conclude this capability is partly hardwired.
To the extent it’s learned, there is a further split: some experts believe the birds are mimicking techniques that are viewed, and others — such as Taylor — state the crows have a more sophisticated strategy.
The differentiation is like two methods for producing paper plane.
“You can stick to a list of instructions — fold in the center, then the corners, etc,” Taylor said.
“Or you may get an image in your head of what you want the plane to look like in the end, and work to that goal.”
To eliminate lingering ambiguity, Taylor and colleagues captured eight wild crows and trained them to fall variously sized pieces of paper into a vending machine so as to retrieve rewards.
In the next part of the experiment, the birds — when given big cards tore up them to make pieces similar in size and shape to those who had made them goodies.
“The crows could recreate tool designs with no reference point — there wasn’t any instrument they could observe when creating a’tool’ in the card,” Taylor said.
The only way the birds might have replicated the objects is by using a”mental template of this tool design in their thoughts.”
Truly, New Caledonian crows don’t seem to imitate or play close attention to the instrument building of different birds in the wild.
But that doesn’t mean that the tools they look can’t be transmitted, Taylor insisted.
“Cumulative cultural development is the natural choice of ideas — we replicate the best ideas and modify them,” he explained.
“Some of these modifications work, some do not, and the top ones are subsequently copied and passed on.”