Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One:
On an island in the South Pacific Ocean, somewhere west of Fiji, a sleek black crow pokes around in the foliage of a sun-streaked rain forest. With its senses sharply focused on the search for food, the bird hops from branch to branch and from plant to plant, jabbing its stout beak into the bases of palm leaves and cocking its head to inspect crannies in the bark. Juicy centipedes, weevils, and grubs are hidden in there, but many of them are out of reach, buried deep in the vegetation or curled up at the bottom of wormholes drilled into the tree trunks.
An ordinary bird might be stymied by these difficulties, but not so our crow. Without hesitation, it flies to a nearby tree and picks up a twig that it has left there a few minutes earlier. At first glance, the stick doesn’t look particularly special; it’s just a twig from a native deciduous tree, Elaeocarpus dognyensis, that has been stripped of leaves and bark. On closer examination, however, you can see that the crotch where the twig broke away from the tree has been nibbled into a tiny hook. And watch what the crow can do with it. Grasping the twig in its bill, the bird flies directly back to its foraging site, positions the stick so that one end is braced against the side of its head, and then deftly inserts the implement, hook first, into the crevice. With a few quick flicks of its beak, the bird works the twig back and forth, then pulls it out with a tasty insect squirming on the end of it. Crow, the Tool User, in action.
This techno-savvy bird is a New Caledonian crow, Corvus moneduloides, a species found only on the remote islands of Grande Terre and Mare in Melanesia. (New Caledonia is a French colony about 1,800 kilometers, or 1,000 miles, northeast of Brisbane.) When the bird’s sophisticated tool behavior was first described by biologist Gavin Hunt of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in 1996, the news made headlines in the prestigious journal Nature and raised a hitherto little-known species to celebrity status. And as the spotlight fell on the New Caledonian crow, the glow of scientific fascination quickly spilled out to include all the other species of crows around the world. They’re out there in our own backyards, spying on us from lampposts, stealing food from the dog, and shattering the early morning with their loud, steel-edged caws. If one species of crow routinely makes and uses toolsa behavior thought to be uniquely humanthen what might the rest of those swaggering black-clad wise guys be up to?