New Caledonian crows have long been recognized as expert tool-makers, but because they are less social than other crow species, researchers have been baffled about how they pass on their craft from generation to generation. A new study may offer answers, according to the BBC. The New Caledonian secret? Homeschooling.
Crows of all varieties are smart, but the native species from the South Pacific island of New Caledonia exhibit superior tool-making capabilities. In fact, they make the most sophisticated tools of any animal yet studied besides humans.
For instance, unlike many tool-using animals that fashion single-use tools, New Caledonian crows have been observed improving upon their tools over time. They even design their tools for appropriate use in the right or left hand depending on the requirements of the task, and they can string together multiple tool parts to reach food.
All of these abilities are impressive, but even more astounding is that they learn their craft despite a relatively limited social network. Most tool-making species, like humans, acquire their skills through instruction and by observing their peers. New Caledonian crows, however, are not highly social.
The mystery prompted Jenny Holzhaider and colleagues from the University of Auckland in New Zealand to observe New Caledonian crows in their natural habitat.
Their study revealed that although New Caledonian crows live in small, tight-knit family units, juveniles will stick around longer than juveniles in other crow species seemingly for the purpose of observing how their parents use tools. A young crow's parents also show a high tolerance for their pesky kid's curiosity, typically allowing a juvenile to toy around with the tools they make.
The study even revealed that a crow's parents appear to go out of their way to make sure that their offspring learn how to make and use the tools they fashion.
"Their social system is based on high quality relationships with a small number of crows, especially immediate family," co-researcher Gavin Hunt told the BBC. "[Juveniles] closely follow and watch their parents' behavior, are taken to tool-using sites, and are 'allowed' to use the tools of their parents."
In other words, New Caledonian crow parents appear to homeschool their young. Researchers also suggest that this strategy may help explain how the crows are so successful at improving their tools. Young crows may be learning from their parents' mistakes and, in a sense, giving feedback.
At the least, you might say that for New Caledonian crows, every day is 'take your child to work day'.