New Caledonian crows attend to multiple functional properties of complex tools

James J H St Clair, Christian Rutz

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40 Citations (Scopus)
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The ability to attend to the functional properties of foraging tools should affect energy-intake rates, fitness components and ultimately the evolutionary dynamics of tool-related behaviour. New Caledonian crows Corvus moneduloides use three distinct tool types for extractive foraging: non-hooked stick tools, hooked stick tools and tools cut from the barbed edges of Pandanus spp. leaves. The latter two types exhibit clear functional polarity, because of (respectively) a single terminal, crow-manufactured hook and natural barbs running along one edge of the leaf strip; in each case, the ‘hooks’ can only aid prey capture if the tool is oriented correctly by the crow during deployment. A previous experimental study of New Caledonian crows found that subjects paid little attention to the barbs of supplied (wide) pandanus tools, resulting in non-functional tool orientation during foraging. This result is puzzling, given the presumed fitness benefits of consistently orienting tools functionally in the wild. We investigated whether the lack of discrimination with respect to (wide) pandanus tool orientation also applies to hooked stick tools. We experimentally provided subjects with naturalistic replica tools in a range of orientations and found that all subjects used these tools correctly, regardless of how they had been presented. In a companion experiment, we explored the extent to which normally co-occurring tool features (terminal hook, curvature of the tool shaft and stripped bark at the hooked end) inform tool-orientation decisions, by forcing birds to deploy ‘unnatural’ tools, which exhibited these traits at opposite ends. Our subjects attended to at least two of the three tool features, although, as expected, the location of the hook was of paramount importance. We discuss these results in the context of earlier research and propose avenues for future work.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20120415
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. B, Biological Sciences
Issue number1630
Early online date7 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2013


  • Animal tool use
  • Tool selectivity
  • Tool choice
  • Hook
  • Folk physics
  • Comparative cognition


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