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The curious case of New Caledonian crows: toolmakers, tool users

Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird

Pamela S. Turner
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
73 pp.
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Age Range: 10 – 12 years

Grade Level: 5 – 7

For many years, human beings were considered unique among animals for their use of tools. This notion was dispelled with the discovery that our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees, use tools to fish termites out of their nests. Crow Smarts explores how one species of bird, New Caledonian crows, are also sophisticated users and makers of tools. Remarkably, while 284 of more than 1 million animal species have been observed to use tools, only 5 are known to make multiple kinds of tools, so the New Caledonian crows are in elite company.

Crow Smarts begins with stories of two individual crows, an adult that Turner refers to as “Munin” and a juvenile she calls “Little Feather.” Faced with an enticing morsel placed just out of reach, Munin must implement a strategy to secure the food scrap. What will he do? The reader is left in suspense as we turn to Little Feather, who struggles to learn how to use sticks, twigs, and dry leaf stems to retrieve grubs, all while begging to be fed directly from the adult crows.

Accounts of the adventures of Munin and Little Feather are woven into stories about researchers, all of which are interspersed with descriptions and facts about other tool-using creatures. The book examines key questions such as how nature and nurture play roles in tool-making and usage and the motivations that lead scientists, both seasoned and in training, to devote their careers to biological research. It is wonderfully illustrated with hundreds of close-up photographs of crows, their tools, and the scientists at work. While it is quite engaging, readers under 10 may find Crow Smarts challenging, and even adults would benefit from reading it more than once. In light of what I learned, I for one vow never to use the term “bird brain” in a negative way again.