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Crow shows she's no bird-brain

Betty, a New Caledonian crow, holds the wire hook she crafted to get food
Betty, a New Caledonian crow, holds the wire hook she crafted to get food  

OXFORD, England -- Oxford scientists have discovered that a crow called Betty is no bird-brain.

Betty astonished scientists by deliberately bending a straight wire into a hook and using it to extract food from a container, the journal Science said on Friday.

The feat, it is said, makes her the first animal other than a human that has shown a clear understanding of cause and effect, and fashioned a tool for a specific task using new materials not encountered in the wild.

Not even chimpanzees, our closest cousins, have this ability.

But Betty's older male lab-mate Abel had a more direct route of securing his meals -- he would snatch the wire or steal the food from Betty. He was not tested to see if he could bend the wire.

Betty and Abel are two captive New Caledonian Crows being studied by Oxford University's Behavioural Ecology Research Group.

In their native home, the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, crows of such species are known to make tools out of twigs and leaves to winkle out grubs.

Scientists first spotted Betty's ability by accident after an experiment to see whether the birds would select a hooked wire rather than a straight wire to use as a tool.

After Abel snatched away the hook Betty was left to adapt by bending the straight wire.

Wired up

She was able to repeat the skill nine times out of 10, using more than one technique.

Professor Alex Kacelnik, who heads the research group, said: "First she tried to get the food with the straight wire, and couldn't reach it. So she pushed the tip of the wire in a crack in the tray and bent it to form a hook. She then used this to get the food.

"We were somewhat surprised. To verify that what we'd observed was not a fluke, we tested the same animal again but only gave her a straight wire. Nine times out of 10 she solved the problem to perfection.

"What is more, she didn't do it the same way each time. Sometimes she stood on the wire with one foot while pulling the tip with her beak.

"Or she stuck the wire into a crevice and worked on it, coming from different angles. If it didn't work right at first, and she couldn't get the food, she'd take it out and fix it so that it did."

Professor Kacelnik said the team planned to see whether other New Caledonian Crows captured from the wild had similar abilities, and whether they might be shared by other birds.

Professor Kacelnik said just because Betty was a gifted tool-maker, it did not mean she was necessarily bright in other areas.

"What we believe is that there isn't a single kind of intelligence," he told the UK's Press Association. "Different species have developed different kinds of intelligence appropriate to their particular needs."

There have been many cases of birds showing surprising levels of intelligence.

Crows and ravens are both good at solving problems, and experiments have shown that pigeons can identify humans and recognise letters of the alphabet.

The most famous intelligent bird is Alex, an African grey parrot studied by Dr Irene Pepperberg in the United States in the 1980s.

He was able to use more than 100 English words correctly to refer to objects, ask questions, and make requests.


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