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Necessity is the mother of invention for clever birds - rooks show insightful and creative tool use

Visit University of Cambridge website

25 May 2009

BBSRC-funded researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Queen Mary, University of London have found that rooks, a member of the crow family, are capable of using and making tools, modifying them to make them work and using two tools in a sequence. The results are published on-line this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This finding is remarkable because rooks do not appear to use tools in the wild, yet they rival habitual tools users such as chimpanzees and New Caledonian crows when tested in captivity,” said Chris Bird, the lead author of the study.

In a series of experiments, the rooks quickly learnt to drop a stone to collapse a platform and acquire a piece of food, and subsequently showed the ability to choose the right size and shape of stone without any training.

Not only could they use stones to solve the task, but they were flexible in their tool choice, using and modifying sticks to achieve the same goal. When the correct tool was out of reach, they used another tool to get it, demonstrating the ability to use tools sequentially. In further tests, the rooks were able to use a hook tool to get food out of a different tube and even creatively bent a straight piece of wire to make the hook to reach the food.

“We suggest that this is the first unambiguous evidence of animal insight because the rooks made a hook tool on their first trial and we know that they had no previous experience of making hook tools from wire because the birds were all hand-raised,” said Dr Nathan Emery, Queen Mary University of London, in whose lab these experiments were performed.

These findings suggest that rooks’ ability to use tools and represent the tools’ useful properties may be a by-product of a sophisticated form of physical intelligence, rather than tool use having evolved as an adaptive specialisation, such as has been proposed for the tool using abilities of New Caledonian crows.

This work was carried out at the University of Cambridge by Christopher Bird, a PhD student, and his supervisor, Dr. Nathan Emery from Queen Mary University of London and was funded by the Royal Society, the BBSRC and the University of Cambridge.

ENDS

Videos

Credit: Chris Bird. Transcripts available upon request.

Bird making hook to access food from Cambridge University on Vimeo.

Bird selects stones to access food from Cambridge University on Vimeo.

Notes to editors

The paper ‘Insightful problem solving and creative tool modification by captive nontool-using rooks’ will be published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ website first online at: http://www.pnas.org/papbyrecent.shtml the week of May 25, 2009.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge

tel: 01223 332300 or 01223 765542
mob: 07774 017464

Chris Bird, University of Cambridge
tel: 01763 257413
mob: 07886 031716

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299
fax: 01793 413382

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382