Scientists Discover Tool Use in Brilliant Hawaiian Crow

Scientists are marveling over the discovery of a crow species that, until now, was unknown to use tools.

The brilliant bird in question is the Hawaiian crow, or ‘Alalā, a critically endangered species that almost disappeared before the discovery.

For decades, New Caledonian crows have been infamous for their impressive ability to use tools to perform tasks. This discovery raised questions about whether other members of the corvid family had evolved to use the same skills.

Dr. Christian Rutz from the University of St. Andrews set out to see if any of their relatives were also tool users, but with over 40 species to choose from, the options had to be narrowed down.

“We had previously noticed that New Caledonian crows have unusually straight bills, and wondered whether this may be an adaptation for holding tools, similar to humans’ opposable thumb,” Rutz explained in a statement.

Based on their bills and other characteristics, Hawaiian crows emerged as a good candidate for further study.

Unfortunately, the ’Alalā is now extinct in the wild, but conservationists are working to save the species. Just over 100 individuals still exist in captivity at facilities in Hawaii and Maui, and these crows are part of a captive breeding program managed by the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

When Rutz reached out, he was told that the ‘Alalā had indeed been observed using tools, and further research began.

According to the team’s findings, which were just published in the journal “Nature,” the ’Alalā is a natural when it comes to using tools.

The individuals studied were tasked with retrieving food from holes drilled in a log, and the vast majority spontaneously used a tool to get the job done. Most were able to choose the best tool, replace bad tools and make new ones. Even young birds that lacked the opportunity to learn from adults turned to tools to get food.

Rutz explained:

Using tools comes naturally to ‘Alalā. These birds had no specific training prior to our study, yet most of them were incredibly skilled at handling stick tools, and even swiftly extracted bait from demanding tasks. In many regards, the ‘Alalā is very similar to the New Caledonian crow, which my team has been studying for over 10 years.

The discovery adds to a growing list of tool-using animals, from elephants and vultures to otters. Such a finding has even excited the likes of Jane Goodall, who first documented chimpanzees using tools decades ago — and killed the belief that humans the only ones to do so.

Goodall added in a statement:

Let this discovery serve to emphasise the importance to conserving these and other animal species so that we can continue to learn ever more about the range of their behaviour before they vanish for ever in the 6th great wave of extinction. We owe it to future generations.”

Hopefully efforts to save the ‘Alalā will be successful and inspire more people to help protect wildlife.

According to Bryce Masuda, co-leader of the study and conservation program manager of San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawai’i Endangered Bird Conservation Program, captive-raised birds will be released later this year in an effort to restore their population in the wild.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

128 comments

Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Peggy B.
Peggy B2 years ago

TYFS

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jackie Tryggeseth
Jackie T2 years ago

Thanks for the wonderful post. Our animal kingdom never ceases to amaze me.

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Holly Potthoff
Holly Potthoff2 years ago

I am not surprised at all. As usual, even scientists underestimate the intelligence of animals. I heard of a case many, many years ago where a thirsty crow dealt with the problem of a glass of water that was so low he couldn't reach it. He gathered stones and dropped them into the glass until the water level was high enough for him to drink. Nothing to it.

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Jennifer H.
Jennifer H2 years ago

What a beautiful bird. I always thought the entire crow family was very intelligent.

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Bayla D.
.2 years ago

Animals mimic the actions of other animals.

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sandy Gardner
sandy Gardner2 years ago

Thanks! I love wild birds!

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Patricia H.
Patricia Harris2 years ago

chris B., it would really be helpful if this gets out to our idiots running our countries.

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Melania Padilla
Melania P2 years ago

Crows are so gorgeous

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