Monday, October 17, 2016

Crow Smarts

If someone calls you a bird brain they usually are not complimenting you. But they should be. Traditionally birds have been thought of as inferior intellectually. In fact their brains are large in proportion to the size of their bodies, generally considered to be a factor in intelligence. Experiments with birds like Alex, an African grey parrot, have shown that many birds do understand words they hear and to act on them. Some birds even understand abstract concepts. So it's no surprise to me to learn that crows are the world's brightest birds.

Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

In CROW SMARTS: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Birds, Pamela S. Turner follows New Caledonian crows and proves them to be geniuses. These birds understand the world around them and have to come up with ingenious solutions to problems. Clear and detailed photographs show the birds as they learn survival skills, use tools, and plan out their actions. Turner also discusses other tool-using and intelligent animals like the chimpanzees in Tanzania, ants, and dolphins. Tool use is especially critical to observe as anthropologists have long thought that it was the use of tools that differentiated humans from other animals. We now know that is not the determining factor. A chart outlines tool use by the numbers: out of 1,371,500 known animal species only New Caledonian crows and humans make hooked tools, for example.

Turner discusses evolution and its effect on brain size. We learn that a large brain is not necessary for survival and that brain size is limited in many animals by other factors. Brain tissue, for example, takes more energy than other body tissues.

Part of the "Scientists in the Field" series, another interesting feature of CROW SMARTS is that the scientist studying crows in New Caledonia actually wasn't there to study them. He was originally studying another bird species but became fascinated by the crows. Often our interests find us rather than the other way around! Turner ends the book with an "Ask the Author" section that answers questions about other crows and crow research.

This is an engaging look at a fascinating bird. Many of us see other species of crows regularly and can attest to their intelligence. And we've been fascinated by crow intelligence for thousands of years. Just look at Aesop's fable, "The Crow and the Pitcher" where the crow must solve a problem. And read CROW SMARTS. While written for children in middle grades, it provides a lot for any reader. And visit Turner's website to view video of crows using tools, funny crow video, a discussion guide, and more.