New Caledonian Crows in the Spotlight

New Caledonian crows are well-known for their resourceful use of tools in the wild. They have been observed using their beaks to skillfully shape twigs into bug-grabbing devices in a way that some researchers believe to be so advanced that it rivals the abilities of some primates. In an effort to find out more about these intelligent birds, that are easily disturbed and therefore difficult to observe, scientists have developed an ingenious new technique to witness their behavior in their peaceful, densely forested mountainous habitats.

Using extremely light-weight miniaturized video cameras with integrated radio-tags which are attached to the crow’s tail feathers by means of adhesive tape, scientists have been able to record previously unobserved details of crow behavior. The cameras are designed in a way that would not hamper the crow’s movements and could be removed by the bird if it proved to be a nuisance. Alternatively the camera would detach with the bird’s natural molting process in a few weeks.

It had previously been thought that New Caledonian crows only used tools to explore cracks and holes in rotting wood and trees, but now it has been discovered that they use tools on the ground as well. A crow was observed searching through leaf litter, presumably for ants or grubs, using a grass-like stem as a tool. The development of tool-using behavior is generally put down to a response to food shortages in easily accessible places. Without some sort of tool to assist the crow in its quest for food, it would not be able to reach bugs in cracks and holes of trees. Searching through leaf litter with a tool is infinitely more successful for the crow than foraging with its feet or beak.

Researchers have been very encouraged by the results of this study, as it has already provided them with new insight into the New Caledonian crows’ behavior. This advanced technology has opened up new avenues of ornithological field research and has the potential to answer many perplexing questions about the behavior and ecology of other bird species that are difficult to study in their natural environment.