Study Shows Crows Are as Smart as Seven-Year-Olds
Remember that old Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher? The one in which a desperately thirsty crow figured out that if he dropped enough pebbles into the long-necked pitcher, he could raise the water level high enough to allow him to drink?
Scientists just proved that crows can really do that.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Crows are brilliant birds. Researchers have validated that point over and over again. We know they can make and use tools, conspire together by conveying information to other crows, and remember things like locations where people shot at them years before. They can even remember your face and tell other crows who you are. Think about that one for a while. Don’t anger a crow. She will remember you—and you don’t want that.
Now scientists have proved that crows are about as smart as a seven-year-old kid, in certain contexts. They published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.
Because it’s not a natural behavior for them, scientists first spent some time training six New Caledonian crows to pick up small rocks and stones and drop them into tubes. The crows’ natural affinity for tool use made this relatively easy.
Then they conducted a series of experiments which children had earlier completed after similar training. The tests done included:
- Water or Sand? A choice between a water-filled tube and a sand-filled tube, to see if the crow could figure out that dropping stones in the water-filled tube raised the water level and gave access to a food reward. Crows nailed this one quickly, some learning within 15 attempts.
- Heavy or Light? A choice between dropping heavy and light stones into the water. The light stones floated, meaning they didn’t help elevate the food into reach. Crows got this one quickly also, choosing heavier stones 88 percent of the time.
- Solid or Hollow? A choice between solid or hollow objects. Hollow objects were lighter, of course, and so less helpful in getting to the food. Crows chose solid objects 89 percent of the time.
- Narrow or Wide Tube? This test was the crows’ downfall. They didn’t catch on that dropping things into the narrower tube raised the water level faster than the wider tube. They only chose the narrow tube 39 percent of the time.
- Narrow Tube with Too Little Water. Here, crows got a tube with a water level that was too low to ever get high enough to give them their treat, no matter how many stones they used. The crows latched on to this trick pretty quickly. They put their stones in the other tube with more water 86.6 percent of the time.
- Three Tubes, One Too Small. This test was another poser that the crows didn’t get. Of three tubes, a middle one held the treat, but was too small for any stone to drop in. One of the other two tubes was connected to the small tube, but the crows didn’t realize putting stone in that one would get them their treat. Oh well.
Successful completion of four of six of these tasks, according to the research team, means crows have a basic but definite understanding of causal relationships.
The study concluded that, “New Caledonian crows possess a sophisticated, but incomplete, understanding of the causal properties of displacement, rivalling that of five–seven year old children.”
That’s rather impressive, isn’t it? Sorry, pretty songbirds. Crows have the Avian Awesomeness category all wrapped up.
Unfortunately, even though they’re the smartypants of the bird world, we give short shrift to crows.
“People tend not to like crows, because they have this fiendish look to them and they’re black and they like dead prey,” Dr. Louis Lefebvre of McGill University told the BBC. “Warblers and the birds that people tend to like are not the high innovators.”
Maybe that’s why people participate in sad and ridiculous events like New York’s “Crow Down.” Why is there any joy associated with killing a crow, or any animal for that matter?
Time and again, researchers demonstrate that animals are so much more intelligent than we give them credit for. Whether they’re elephants that use teamwork to solve problems, pigs that can play video games with a joy stick, dolphins that teach tricks to each other, chimpanzees that can beat humans in short-term memory tests, or crows that can solve causal relationship problems, there’s an astounding abundance of savvy animal activity going on all around us.
Why then do we continue to hunt them, harass them, destroy their habitat and otherwise harm them? We do it because we can, but not because it’s right. Perhaps we’re learning—slowly—that we share this earth with other animals. They have as much right to live here in peace as we do. Can’t we just let them do that?
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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