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Bending Sticks Into Tools Is Apparently NBD for Crows

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You know how parents think their kid’s first step was the most impressive first step in the history of the world, or that no other child could possibly be as clever? Apparently these love-goggles are not unique to parents. Researchers say they were “completely surprised” to discover that the brilliant behavior of a star subject—a clever crow named Betty—was pretty normal in the wild. They published their report in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Birds, especially crows, are smarter than we like to admit, but New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) take it to the next level. These birds have been using tools for so long that their beaks have evolved to make tool-handling easier. They select the best sticks and leaves, trim them neatly with their beaks, and even put them away carefully when they’re finished. They’re totally on top of this twig thing. 

Even so, researchers were boggled in 2002 when they saw Betty, a wild-caught crow, pick up a length of wire in the lab and bend it into a hook shape in order to fish a food bucket out of a tube. 

The bird had seemingly spontaneously invented a new method of tool production. In bending that wire, the authors wrote, Betty demonstrated an extraordinary knowledge of causality and “folk physics” to an extent never before seen in a non-human animal.

But just because we hadn’t seen it doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening. Biologist Christian Rutz and his colleagues at the University of St. Andrews have been studying wild New Caledonian crows for the last four years. They brought 18 crows into large temporary enclosures and gave them puzzles that could only be solved with tools. 

To the researchers’ great surprise, 10 out of the 18 crows bent their twigs into hooks without giving it a second thought. And they didn't do it just once: This group produced 85 hooks in all. It turns out that Betty, who died in 2005, wasn't such a genius after all.

“We couldn’t believe our eyes,” Rutz told New Scientist. “Most birds trapped sticks underfoot before bending the tool shaft by bill, but one also pushed tools against the logs to flex them, and another wedged them upright into holes before pulling the shaft sideways, just as Betty had done.” 

The scientists realized that, in addition to selecting twigs for shape and size, the birds were looking for pliability. Not just any stick would do.

Watching the birds crafting their tools, Rutz said, he and his colleagues were “over the Moon.”

“In light of our new results,” he said, “more experiments are needed to figure out what exactly these birds are capable of.”

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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