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“Crow Smarts” Field Notes from New Caledonia

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Discovery is the very essence of science, so it makes total sense that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and adventure go hand-in-hand.

One of my favorite STEM adventurers is Pamela S. Turner. As a volunteer at Lindsay Wildlife Museum, Turner cares for injured crows and returns them to the wild once they’ve healed. As a children’s author, she’s written a number of cool science books, including several in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Scientists in the Field” series. I recently put together a story and video about the work she’s doing combining both of her interests into a book titled “Crow Smarts,” which is about the tool-using crows of New Caledonia. She researched the book by traveling to the island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with photographer Andy Comins to visit with the scientists studying the crows. Turner agreed to share her field notes and photos from her trip and even provided some video of those clever little crows using tools to feed.

Special thanks to Pamela S. Turner, Andy Comins, and publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for sharing this adventure and be sure to look for “Crow Smarts” on shelves in 2016!

If you know of someone doing something cool with Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math, drop me a line at teslafong@gmail.com.

You can find out more about me and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest!

Pamela S. Turner’s Notes from the Field

Have you ever wondered what it’s like be in the field researching one of these books? Here’s the day-by-day, play-by-play, behind-the-scenes story of CROW SMARTS.

Day One
Photographer Andy Comins and I fly thirteen hours from California to Auckland, New Zealand…wait in the airport for four hours…catch another three-hour flight to Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia…drive approx. two hours to La Foa, a small town on the west coast. Maybe “Day One” is now “Day Two.” Who knows? We’re barely conscious with time change involved in traveling from one part of the globe to another.

Day Two
We get our first look at New Caledonian crows! University of Auckland scientists have rented a house and land near La Foa and built aviaries. Wild-caught crows live here for a few months, participating in cognitive experiments, before being re-released into the wild. The most surprising thing is the constant soft mewing sounds these crows make to each other.

That evening we hike into the forest with a group of scientists who are radio-tracking kagu, a mostly flightless and highly endangered bird found only in New Caledonia. We locate five, all of which seem very grumpy about being woken up. Sorry, kagu. (That’s a kagu pictured above.)

Day Three
Dr. Gavin Hunt, the scientist who discovered the remarkable tool skills of New Caledonian crows, takes us into a nearby forest. We set up a blind and a feeding station (a log with holes drilled into it). Gavin chops up a decomposing log and shows us how to gather the wood-boring grubs that crows like to eat. Gavin plays a recording of crow calls. Once…twice…three times. Five crows fly in! However, they are more interested in the chopped-up tree than our carefully prepared feeding station. We’ll try again tomorrow. When it comes to field science, persistence and optimism are just as important as careful observation.

Day Four
Andy, Gavin and I huddle in the blind all day. Andy hopes to get a video of the wild crows using tools to extract grubs. One of the juvenile crows can’t figure out how to do it himself/herself, and instead begs from an industrious adult. As soon as the adult fishes out a grub with its stick-tool, the juvenile snatches the tasty prize and flies off. Lazy bird!

Day Five
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 photo! We get videos! (Here’s a short clip.) Thanks, crows! Afterward we try to get fancy. We turn the log ninety degrees to get another angle, and hide a 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 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.

Day Ten
We can’t go into the aviaries because an experiment is finishing up. So Andy I and drive to the eastern side of the island. He drops me off and drives farther north to take photos of the dramatic rocky coastline. I stay at a seaside hotel and make plans to go scuba diving the next day.

Day Eleven
The dive boat heads out into large swells and the captain decides to abort the dive. Rats. All geared up and no place to go.

Day Twelve
Aviary day! Guido De Filippo, a University of Auckland graduate student, demonstrates two different experiments that have been run with the crows. You’ll have to wait for the book to come out to learn just what these clever birds can do. All of the birds we photograph are from a place called Yaté, in the southeast corner of the island. The Yaté crows will be released as soon as the experiments are finished, and Andy and I hope to be there.

Day Thirteen
Back to the aviary for some final photos. Gavin has drilled a hole in a piece of wood and secured Plexiglas to the back—it’s housing for Andy’s GoPro. We get a nice short video clip of a crow sticking a tool into the hole to pull out a chunk of meat–from the meat’s point of view.

Day Fourteen
Experiments are going on in the aviary, so Andy and I take a field trip to the zoo in Noumea, capital of New Caledonia. Their walk-in aviary allows Andy to get close-up shots of kagu.

Day Fifteen
A release of the Yaté crows had been scheduled for today, but now is postponed so that some additional experimental work can be done in the aviaries. Andy kindly drops me off in Noumea so I can go scuba diving during our short hiatus.

Day Sixteen
Wind kicks up and dive trip is cancelled. I visit the Noumea aquarium. I also visit the fish market, because hey, it has fish. The rest of the day is devoted to the un-fun task transcribing notes into my computer.

Day Seventeen
Windy again. No diving. And now the weather report says “rain expected” on the new crow release date. Uh-oh. Rain will make it difficult for Andy to get photos. Also, we’re told that getting the crows out to the release site near Yaté will require wading through chest-high water.

Day Eighteen
Release day! Andy picks me up and we meet Gavin and Vero Monjo (a volunteer with the project), who have five crows in cat carriers on the back seat of their truck. We follow them out to Yaté to meet Adolphe Ouetcho, a local resident, who guides us to the release site on a little islet. Remarkably, it doesn’t rain on us, and the tide is out so we can slosh across without getting soaked. Actually nicer than using a wetsuit. The release goes very well as Adolphe, Vero and Gavin take turns letting the crows go. Shortly afterward we hear a lot of squawking in the trees.

Day Eighteen – continued
I go off to the airport; Andy heads to the beach for a short but well-earned vacation. On my layover in Auckland I get an email from folks at Lindsay Wildlife Hospital, where I volunteer as Species Manager for American crows. We have seven crows (brought to the hospital as fledglings) who are all grown up and self-feeding and need to be released. This is definitely Crow Freedom Week.

Day Nineteen
Back in California. Jet lag recovery and laundry will have to wait because, well, crows! I catch the crows, who are living in a big aviary, and put them in individual port-a-pet boxes. Ryan Kozisek, one of our vet techs, gives each of them a pre-release exam. I drive the crows to the release site in Brentwood, California, where another volunteer lives on a farm with big trees, a water source, and a resident flock of crows. Three of the crows I release were birds I spent several weeks hand-feeding, but they clearly don’t like me anymore. They squawk and try to peck my hand. This ideal, because it means they are ready to return to the wild. One by one, each crow takes flight. A wonderful end to a spectacular crow season.