Croooooow! (Wise cracker)

Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner, photographs by Andy Comins, art by Guido de Filippo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 9780544416192.

Crows are so cool! Crow Smarts follows current research in the field on New Caledonian crows and puts it in context with other animal behavior, theories about the brain, and the complexities of animal use of tools. There’s also the funny story of a kid crow learning from its parent how to use a stick to get a juicy grub, as observed by the author. The book is entertaining, engaging, and I learned a lot.

I had heard bits and pieces about crow intelligence, but I had sort of lumped all of them together. Turns out New Caledonian crows are unique even among their clever relatives: they not only use tools, they design tools by carefully snipping twigs and pandan leaves and are able to solve multi-part puzzles like using one tool to retrieve another tool to grab a treat, and bending a piece of wire into a hook to pull up a tiny bucket. (There’s a pretty amusing chapter on some captive New Caledonian crows in a behavior lab in Oxford going through different tests of reasoning and problem solving. They are more successful than human children!) New Caledonian crows have straighter beaks (so it’s easier to hold tools), forward-facing eyes (better depth perception for tools), and no competition for the grubs that burrow in tree trunks (yum).

There’s great information on whether or not big brains are evolutionarily advantageous (only sometimes, as they require a lot of extra food), the overlap in brain processing for tool use and language use, and how both humans and crows live socially and are flexible in what they eat, which encourages cooperation and may have evolved at the same time as tool use.

Every Scientists in the Field book includes the background of a scientist that will broaden your idea of who can go into science fields. This one has a scientist who didn’t start college until he was 30, one who is also an artist and sketches in his field notes (he contributed illustrations for the book), and a local New Caledonian grandfather who captures and re-releases the crows, and is learning about their behavior along with the scientists.

Let’s cheat a bit, and flip to the end of the book: Turner’s bibliography is a long list of articles from peer-reviewed science journals and not, as is the case in many science books for kids, a list of other science books for kids.

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