Clever Crows and Not So Clever Humans

4th June 2010

According to the BBC, scientists have made a discovery about crows. They use tools. According to the report, the scientists “attached the 14g (0.5oz) units – which also contained a radio tag to transmit location coordinates – to the tail feathers of 18 New Caledonian crows”.  One scientist said “Before, we thought the crows targeted their tool use at fallen dead trees where they probe for grubs; but now we have observed them using tools on the ground – and that has never been seen before.” The full report is here.

I don’t want to belittle these findings, but I have to say that one doesn’t need special equipment or great perspicacity to grasp the complexity of bird cognition and awareness.

One homely illustration may suffice. Outside the Centre’s office where I daily work, we have planted an almond tree on which I regularly hang a seed ball held in a green plastic basket covering. Almost immediately, a magpie discovered this offering and determined that, instead of the labour of regular pecking (as all the other birds do), he would take the whole food ball away. He carefully moved the ball along the branch making it fall to the ground and then winged it away wholesale (no small feat since the weight of the ball must have been more than half of the weight of the bird itself). Not to be so easily trumped, I then wrapped the subsequent ball in plastic-covered wire only to find that the magpie daw then prized open the wire to make the food again fall to the ground. Not to be utterly undone, I then tied the ball tightly wrapped (twice) in wire to the branch, but this time firmly attached by new wire – only to find that he then spent time using his beak to unravel every turn of the wire and free the food.

To date, I have lost the battle. There is no way in which I can currently place food outside without him finding another way of defeating my purpose.

Such observations will be dismissed as unscientific anecdotes, but isn’t observation one kind of scientific evidence? In fact, unaided observation of other animals delivers us of astonishing insights into their capacities for rational planning and execution. Michel de Montaigne’s ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’ published as early as 1592 is replete with keen observations of animals which indicate their intelligence and perspicacity.

Of course it is useful to know more about animals. But does one really have to capture them and burden them with radio tags in order to learn these things, when careful observation can demonstrate so much?

More to the point, a realisation of the awareness and sentiency of animals and birds ought to lead to an increased appreciation of their inherent value. But the step from recognition of sentience and complexity to moral valuing is precisely the step that so many scientists (like others) appear unable to take. We appear to be able to admire animals as complex machines, but fail to make the even more important discovery that animals, like us, are worth something in themselves – and should, therefore, be saved the burden of having to be treated (as in this case) as simply objects of experiments.

Andrew Linzey