Betty the crow may not have invented her hook-bending tool trick

Textbook example of ‘spontaneous’ toolmaking challenged by wild bird studies

crow bending stick

BIRD BENDING  A wild New Caledonian crow has used a hook it made to snag an insect. New studies of twig bending raise questions about an earlier report of a lab bird’s possible toolmaking insight.

James St Clair

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Betty, heralded as a toolmaking prodigy among New Caledonian crows, may not have been such a whiz bird after all. Her apparently spontaneous wire-bending is getting a closer, skeptical look based on new information about what the birds do in the wild.

As a lab resident, Betty astounded researchers more than a decade ago by bending a wire into a hook — with no obvious design cues or known experience — and then using the hook to retrieve a treat from the depths of a tube. Described cautiously in 2002, the report of Betty’s hook became “widely considered one of the most compelling demonstrations of insightful behavior in nonhumans,” says Christian Rutz of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Now, tool tests of wild New Caledonian crows temporarily held in a field aviary raise the possibility that Betty might have had experience with twig bending before coming into the lab, Rutz and colleagues say August 10 in Royal Society Open Science.

In the recent tests with 18 wild-caught Corvus moneduloides, 10 birds vigorously bent a pliable stick tool they were making, the researchers report. Betty, who died in 2005, had also been caught in the wild and may have had some experience with bending pliable wood. The observations don’t disprove the claim that she invented wire-bending spontaneously, but do raise an alternative explanation, Rutz says.

WILD HOOK A wild New Caledonian crow demonstrates one of several methods in the species’ repertoire to add a bit of curve to twigs. These tweaked tools can snag food out of hard-to-reach spots.Rutz Group

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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