Report from New Caledonia, Part 2: Searching for the Holy Grail

Crow Smarts

Have you ever wondered what it’s like be in the field researching a book for the Scientists in the Field series? Here’s the day-by-day, play-by-play, behind-the-scenes story of Crow Smarts (2016), the amazing story of New Caledonian crows, famous for their brainpower and their ability to make and use tools. Our adventure is already underway, but you can click here to learn about our first days in the field and then check back for regular updates as we explore the amazing lives of these clever crows!

Day Five Here we are again, back in the forest, back in the blind, watching crows for the upcoming book, Crow Smarts.

If you want to make life difficult for a photographer, be sure to ask him to shoot small, jet-black animals whose every move is a fast twitch. Oh, and make sure the shoot takes place in a shady forest. The moment when a crow is holding a tool with a grub on the end is particularly difficult to capture on film because it happens so fast. We review the photos and realize that we have lots of shots of tool use but not the “grub moment.” This becomes our Holy Grail.

Day Six We get photos! We get videos! (Click here to see what we captured on film!) Thanks, crows! Afterward we try to get fancy. We turn the log ninety degrees to get another angle, and hide a small GoPro camera near the log. But the birds seem suspicious of the changes and suddenly we don’t get as many visitors.

Day Seven Five days is a long time to sit quietly in a blind.

Day Eight Today Gavin gets to the feeding site early to set up a new capture net that he wants to test. We meet him nearby and he leads us on a hike up to a beautiful plateau. Gavin shows us “counterparts” on a pandanus plant—the distinctive marks left behind on pandanus leaves after the crows have made tools from leaf strips. We film videos of Gavin explaining the process and making sample tools. At the end of the day Andy and I are tired but happy.

Day Nine Capture day. Now that the crows have had a day to get used to the capture net set-up, we return to the blind. Two crows fly down, and Gavin springs the net—but the crows get away. We wait for more crows. Two other crows land, Gavin pulls the net—and this time he has them. The crows are surprisingly good sports about being held, banded, and having their blood drawn. They don’t even squawk. When Gavin releases them they calmly fly into a nearby tree and try to peck off the bands.

Next up: Are Crows Smarter than a First-Grader?

by Pamela Turner

About Pamela Turner

PamelaTurner

Pamela S. Turner lives in Oakland, California with her children and her husband. She has a B.A. in social science from UCAL-Irvine and a Master’s of public health from UCAL-Berkeley. She has written numerous books for young readers, including Hachiko and the Scientists in the Field titles Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes, The Frog Scientist, Project Seahorse, The Dolphins of Shark Bay and her forthcoming work, Crow Smarts. Visit her website at pamelasturner.com.

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