This 2008 TED talk is titled “A thought experiment on the intelligence of crows.” I don’t know why it’s called a thought experiment – the experiment Klein describes is an actual, physical experiment. But no matter. This is interesting stuff.
Some key points and quotes:
“I started noticing that we are very aware of all the species that are going extinct on the planet as a result of human habitation expansion, and no one seems to be paying attention to all the species that are actually living — that are surviving. And I’m talking specifically about synanthropic species, which are species that have adapted specifically for human ecologies, species like rats and cockroaches and crows. And as I started looking at them, I was finding that they had hyper-adapted. They’d become extremely adept at living with us. They’re found everywhere on the planet except for the Arctic and the southern tip of South America. And in all that area, they’re only rarely found breeding more than five kilometers away from human beings.”
“This is Betty. She’s a New Caledonian crow. And these crows use sticks in the wild to get insects and whatnot out of pieces of wood. Here, she’s trying to get a piece of meat out of a tube. But the researchers had a problem. They messed up and left just a stick of wire in there. You see, it wasn’t working very well. So she adapted. Now this is completely unprompted. She had never seen this done before. No one taught her to bend this into a hook, had shown her how it could happen. But she did it all on her own.”
“At University of Washington, they were doing an experiment where they captured some crows on campus. Some students went out and netted some crows, brought them in, and weighed them, and measured them and whatnot, and then let them back out again. For the rest of the week, whenever these particular students walked around campus, these crows would caw at them, and run around and make their life kind of miserable. This went on for the next week. And the next month. And after summer break. Until they finally graduated and left campus, and came back sometime later, and found the crows still remembered them. So now, students at the University of Washington that are studying these crows do so with a giant wig and a big mask.”
“In this Japanese city, they have devised a way of eating a food that normally they can’t manage: drop it among the traffic. The problem now is collecting the bits, without getting run over. Wait for the light to stop the traffic. Then, collect your cracked nut in safety. So what’s significant about this isn’t that crows are using cars to crack nuts. In fact, that’s old hat for crows. This happened about 10 years ago in a place called Sendai City, at a driving school in the suburbs of Tokyo. And since that time, all of the crows in the neighborhood are picking up this behavior. And now, every crow within five kilometers is standing by a sidewalk, waiting to collect its lunch. So, they’re learning from each other. And research bears this out. Parents seem to be teaching their young. They’ve learned from their peers.”
In the final segment of the talk, Klein explains how he built a vending machine for crows that would release a peanut when a coin was dropped into it, and how the crows figured out how to operate it.