Enlarge / A New Caledonian crow uses a serrated leaf edge to pull grubs out of a hole in a log. (credit: Mark Sibley)
Crows share an interesting set of behaviors with humans: they like to play, and they often use tools. We know that humans play to learn. When toddlers knock over a pile of blocks, they’re developing the ability to build and measure objects in the real world.
The question is, do crows play for the same reason? An international team of cognitive scientists played with some crows to find out. What they discovered gives us a new understanding of crow consciousness, but it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Lund University cognitive science researcher Megan Lambert and her colleagues designed three experiments to figure out whether there’s a relationship between crow play and their ability to use tools to solve puzzles.
It’s well-documented that wild New Caledonian crows make a variety of tools, from hooked sticks to specially-prepared leaf edges, to pull insects out of hard-to-reach spots in trees.
But crows have also been observed doing all kinds of weird things with tools, often for what seems like the pursuit of fun.
A crow sleds down a roof using a plastic lid.
In the YouTube video above, you can see a crow in Russia using a plastic lid to sled down a snowy roof. Researchers call these shenanigans “unrewarded object exploration.” The crow doesn’t get a “reward” because nothing about this activity aids its survival.
Its only reward is the fun of sliding down a roof.
But maybe, Lambert and her colleagues speculated, this type of seemingly goofy activity might actually lead to better tool use later on.
The bird is learning about slipperiness, after all, and we even see it figuring out that it can’t slide on the roof unless there’s enough snow underneath the lid.
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