Birds' Problem-Solving Validates Aesop

An undated photo released by The University of Cambridge shows a rook, a member of the crow family, as it drops stones into a tube to raise the water level and bring a worm into reach, at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour at University of Cambridge. In Aesop's fable 'The crow and the pitcher' a thirsty crow uses stones to raise the level of water in a pitcher to quench its thirst. A new study published online Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009 in the journal Current Biology demonstrates that rooks, birds belonging to the corvid, or crow family, are able to solve complex problems using tools and can easily master the same technique demonstrated in Aesop's fable. (AP Photo/The University of Cambridge) AP Photo/University of Cambridge

From the goose that laid the golden egg to the race between the tortoise and the hare, Aesop's fables are known for teaching moral lessons rather than literally being true. But a new study says at least one such tale might really have happened.

It's the fable about a thirsty crow. The bird comes across a pitcher with the water level too low for him to reach. The crow raises the water level by dropping stones into the pitcher.

Moral: "Little by little does the trick," or in other retellings, "Necessity is the mother of invention."

Now, scientists report that some relatives of crows called rooks used the same stone-dropping strategy to get at a floating worm. Results of experiments with three birds were published online Thursday by the journal Current Biology.

Rooks, like crows, had already been shown to use tools in previous experiments.

Christopher Bird of Cambridge University and a colleague exposed the rooks to a 6-inch-tall clear plastic tube containing water, with a worm on its surface. The birds used the stone-dropping trick spontaneously and appeared to estimate how many stones they would need. They learned quickly that larger stones work better.

In an accompanying commentary, Alex Taylor and Russell Gray of the University of Auckland in New Zealand noted that in an earlier experiment, the same birds had dropped a single stone into a tube to get food released at the bottom. So maybe they were just following that strategy again when they saw the tube in the new experiment, the scientists suggested.

But Bird's paper argued there's more to it: The rooks dropped multiple stones rather than just one before reaching for the worm, and they reached for it at the top of the tube rather than checking the bottom.

The researchers also said Aesop's crow might have actually been a rook, since both kinds of birds were called crows in the past.


To watch video of the rooks in this experiment click here.
By AP Science Writer Malcolm Ritter
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