Betty, the Uber Crow

The New Yorker had an interesting article dealing with intelligent bird brains.  One such is Betty, the Caledoin crow, who has been studied for some time by one Professor Kacelnick of the UK.

Betty, while just a bird brained crow, makes tools.

They like to eat pig heart—do those crows.  So the Professor put some in a flask and next to that a straight piece of metal and waited to see if Betty and the other crows would use it to get at the pig heart.  Here’s what one report says:

Betty’s tool-making abilities came to light by accident during an experiment in which she and Abel had to choose between a hooked and a straight wire for retrieving small pieces of pig heart, their favorite food. When Abel [another crow] made off with the hooked wire, Betty bent the straight wire into a hook and used the tool to lift a small bucket of food from a vertical pipe. This experiment was the first time the crows had been presented with wire.

The researchers then devised a new experiment to test Betty’s startling behavior systematically. They placed one piece of straight garden wire on top of the tube and waited for either crow to try retrieving the food. In her 10 successful retrievals, Betty bent the wire into a hook nine times. Abel retrieved the food once, without bending the wire.

But what does this prove?  That crows have cognitive abilities heretofore unnoticed?  Not necessarily.  Betty may be a genius crow because it appears the other crows can’t do what Betty does.  For scientists trying to make a general claim this is a problem.  Exceptions don’t prove the rule.

But this got me to wondering.  Perhaps this is always the case.  I know animals learn from each other.  To me that would be the next thing to test.  Did or do the other crows pick up Betty’s wisdom?

And is this perhaps not applicable also to the human species.  If as sociologists say human beings are herd animals, “learning” is pretty much a case of monkey-see, monkey-do.  We “ape” each other.  What if every so often a particularly “intelligent” naked ape came along, did something smart (that increased chances of survival in a particular situation) and us other naked apes picked it up and then passed it along as part of the cultural heritage.

If this is the case, the so-called “progress” of the human race may be the result not of the general intelligence of the species but the product of individual genetic freaks.

God  bless the freaks.

Click here for some video of Betty at work.