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Bird Intelligence and Tool Use

Updated on August 23, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Tools Use

If tool use is a sign of intelligence we may have to upgrade our estimation of some of our feathered friends.
If tool use is a sign of intelligence we may have to upgrade our estimation of some of our feathered friends. | Source

Defining Tool Use

Birds are fascinating animals that seem to have much more intelligence that we humans and our science give them credit for. This is a compilation of different behaviors seen in both scientific research and wild situations. Whether these behaviors were utilitarian or just for fun, we may not know until a Mynah bird can be trained to translate for us. Either way, they are thought provoking and fun to watch.

Benjamin Beck defined tool use as:

"the external employment of an unattached environmental object to alter more efficiently the form, position, or condition of another object, another organism, or the user itself, when the user holds or carries the tool during or just prior to use and is responsible for the proper and effective orientation of the tool."

According to this widely accepted definition, a bird that uses a twig to extract food from a crevice is using a tool.

Besides the tool use definition above, there is a second term, proto-tool use, that covers situations that don’t involve the creation of a tool, but where a bird uses what some would consider 'creative or clever' means to accomplish a task.

New Caledonian Crows using Tools by Scott Echols

How Smart is a Crow by zgblk

Tool-making Crows by quisling76

Bird Tool Use

Birds have been seen using tools for centuries. A number of scientific experiments have been done to quantify the behavior. In these experiments, the birds have used sticks to get at seeds in crevices or as a rake to pull seeds closer to them. In some cases birds have used stones and other objects to displace water to float up nuts in tubes.

Crows and their kin seem to be the smartest birds in this area. The scientific reason for this is believed to be the larger brain size of crows in comparison to proto-tool using birds. Not all these larger brained birds are related, so we can’t say any particular family of birds have a corner on tool use, but it does seem to take a larger brain to show such aptitudes. Thirty-three different families of birds have been found to use tools.

The grand champion tool using bird appears to be the Caledonian Crow. Gavin R. Hunt, published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology in 2013 states that,

“the New Caledonian Crows manufacture the most complex foraging tools used by nonhuman animals. Not only do they shape multiple tool designs of different complexity out of raw material using distinct, design-specific manufacture techniques, they are the only species to incorporate hook technology. The three different hook tool designs that they cut out of barbed Pandanus spp. leaves are suggested to have evolved by a process of diversification through cumulative changes rather than independent invention.”

The use of sticks mentioned involved poking at a large wood-boring beetle larvae until the insect bit the stick in defense. Once the larvae had a firm grasp, the bird pulled them up out of the tree crevice to eat. The crows also used this trick on non-living food in laboratory experiments, by skewering the food. Crows have also been seen using a small stick to get at a larger stick in order to use it to rake seeds closer. Check out the videos to see this sort of behavior. Notice, in the first video, the crow is careful not to lose his useful stick.

Proto-tool Use

The smaller brained birds that don’t make tools still get the job done. If you watch birds by the sea, you may have seen a Seagull dropping shells on concrete from 10 to 20 feet above ground to break them open. This is proto-tool use and does work, but it can take several tries. Birds that know this trick don’t seem to mind the work involved. Other birds, like the one in the next video living in Japan, have learned that they can get nuts cracked by placing them in road traffic. Eventually, a car will run over the nut, so all the bird has to do it gather the crumbs.

Clever Crows by ConcreteJungleblog

Proto-tool use can also be seen in other shore birds. The Green Heron in this next video may have taken a clue from watching humans. Children and adults love to go to parks and throw bread to birds. They also toss bread into ponds to see fish jump for a meal. This Heron has captured some bread and has put it to use to gain his dinner.

Green Heron Catching Fish with Bread Bait

Moments When You Wish You had a Camera

I’ve had a few moments watching birds where they have seemed to be either playing or experimenting with human objects. One instance involved a quart milk carton in a parking lot. I’m not sure where the bird got it, but there this crow was in a quiet area playing with a carton about the same height as himself. His tugging on the carton got my attention. I then saw him pull the carton up and balance it into an upright position. He then backed up a step to admire his accomplishment and then knocked it over again. I saw the crow repeat this three times before I had to move on.

The below video maker did have a camera and documented another crow having fun with another human object. This crow video went viral in 2012. It shows a crow snowboarding with a jar lid. It reminded me of kids grabbing metal trash can lids or cardboard for the same purpose. Did the crow see humans snowboarding and decide to try it himself? We will never know, but by the number of depressions in the snow, we can infer that he was having a good time.

Crowboarding by RT

Birds Playing Games

The below video of an African Raven seems to show some clever cognitive understanding as the bird matches shapes to similar shaped holes in a child’s learning toy. The bird was being rewarded with food treats, but in a couple of cases, the bird seemed more interested in the game than the treats.

African Raven Works a Puzzle by stelpip

A Final Note

We all know birds make beautiful music, but a video maker named Johnson boy decided to take that to a new level. He laid out two Gibson guitars and let the local wild birds have a jam session. One would think the amplified sounds would have scared these Zebra Finches off, but that wasn’t the case. Was the bird going at the strings with a twig thinking about building a nest or did he make his own pick or slide to manipulate more than one string at a time? You be the judge.

40 Wild Birds Play a Gibson Les Paul Guitar by JOHNSON BOY

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      What's fascinating is that the bird dropping the nut on the road so cars can run over it somehow manages to eat the cracked nut without getting run over itself. Crossing the road without getting hit by a car takes real intelligence!


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