Spotlight on Science Writers: Pamela Turner

Image - spotlight150.pngA select group of authors who have won or been finalists for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books have been invited to write or record an introduction to one of their books. We have suggested a few guidelines, but the format and content have been chosen by each author and will be appropriate for their book's intended audience. Science NetLinks will include related classroom resources appropriate for students and educators at the end of each Spotlight on Science Writers post. You can read all the posts in this series here.

Seashell Collector. Photo Credit: Andy Comins.

Crow SmartsPamela S. Turner on Crow Smarts:

All crows are beautiful. These birds are sleek, sassy, and Oscar-ready at the drop of a feather. I do confess to having a favorite, however. I named her “Seashell Collector.”

When I met Seashell Collector she was housed in an aviary in New Caledonia. She had been living there for about five months. Every day the University of Auckland researchers would shoo her down the screened hallway into an experimental room, where she had to do things like remember where a graduate student hid a piece of meat (Cup number one? Cup number two? Cup number three?). From Seashell Collector's point of view, a few minutes of perplexing and nonsensical tasks … then back into her enclosure. In her leisure time she could peer through the netting and watch the crows in neighboring enclosures. Four other crows housed in the aviary had been caught on the same islet, so they must have been Seashell Collector's family members or close neighbors. But the other half-dozen research subjects hailed from different parts of New Caledonia. A lot of crow-chatting went on between the inmates—mostly soft kittenish mewing sounds. Did Seashell Collector find some of the other crows hard to understand on account of their funny accents?

Other than mewing at the other crows, visiting the experimental room, and nibbling through her daily ration of softened cat chow, tomatoes, and papaya, Seashell Collector didn’t have all that much to keep her busy. Crows do not do well with boredom. They are highly intelligent—on a level with primates—and want to do stuff. Challenges abound in the forests of New Caledonia, where there are bugs to find and tools to make, so the crow can extract those previously mentioned bugs (there’s lots more about the hows and whys of this tool-making in Crow Smarts). Unfortunately, an aviary—even the best-designed aviary—cannot replicate the liveliness of life in the wild. So Seashell Collector … I bet you saw this coming … starting collecting seashells.

Though the dirt-floored aviaries were several miles inland, tiny white seashells and small chunks of bleached coral dotted the red-brown soil. Seashell Collector excavated her favorites and flew them to the shelf that held her water dish. Plonk. I know it’s not wise to read human emotions and characteristics into animals ... but Seashell Collector looked like a crow with a hobby.

While photographer Andy Comins was setting up his shots, I peeked in at Seashell Collector. As she stared at me, I noticed that the floor of her aviary was looking rather picked-over. I scratched around in the dirt at my feet until I uncovered a tiny, perfect cowrie shell. When I pushed it through the netting of her enclosure, it startled Seashell Collector. She jumped in surprise. And then her eye fixed on the seashell. Crows do not drool, but if that bird had been a Labrador….

I politely stepped away from the netting so Seashell Collector would feel comfortable coming to the ground to fetch my offering. And she did. She flew her prize up to the shelf; Plonk went the water dish.

A week later, I joined scientist Gavin Hunt as he took Seashell Collector and four other crows back to the islet where they had been captured. They had done their part (involuntarily) for science and deserved to fly free again. After a messy, muddy trudge, we reached our destination. One by one, we let all of them go. Their waak waak waaks brought every crow on the islet winging in for a joyous family reunion.

While this was going on, I happened to look down at my feet. Only then did I realize that Seashell Collector’s home was literally covered in bits of white seashells and bleached coral. Maybe this fact only has meaning for me. But I will leave you with these questions: Was Seashell Collector's “hobby” just a coincidence? Or are crows capable of nostalgia?

Pamela S. Turner is the author of ten non-fiction books for young people; four of them have been finalists or winners of AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. Her book The Frog Scientist won the 2010 Middle Grades AAAS/SB&F Prize. She has also been honored as an AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize finalist for Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes and Life on Earth and Beyond: An Astrobiologist's Quest. Pamela lives in Oakland, California, and volunteers at Lindsay Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital nearby. For more about crows, including videos of New Caledonian crows in action, please visit her website.

Her book, Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird, was the winner of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books in the Middle School Science Book category.

Going Further

  • Book/Author Resources
    • Pamela Turner's website can be found here. She has resources and videos for Crow Smarts here.
    • Pamela has written many other books in addition to Crow Smarts, including The Frog Scientist. In this AAAS Book Talk, you can listen to her and Andy Comins, the photographer for both books, talk about that earlier book.
    • Crow Smarts is one in a long series of books in which you get to accompany scientists on their day-to-day adventures. Find other titles, meet the authors, and watch videos at Scientists in the Field. You can read Pamela's Adventure Note about this book here.
    • Watch a video of Pamela releasing orphaned baby crows she hand-reared on behalf of Lindsay Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital.
  • Crows and Other Birds
    • In the Counting Crows podcast, you can learn about how crows are excellent counters.
    • All About Birds gives information on 600 species of birds, from the common American Robin to the rare Kirtland's Warbler.
    • Watch a video to see how parrots fly, listen to a podcast about how they learn, and read a blog post about the writing of the book Parrots Over Puerto Rico.
    • In the Feather Analysis Science Update, you'll hear about a new technique for tracking birds.
    • Watch a video of the Marbled Murrelet, a threatened Pacific seabird. The murrelet was the last bird species in North America to have its nesting site discovered in 1974. These birds nest in old-growth, redwood forests but spend most of their lives out on the ocean.
    • Watch a video of a morning bird inventory from the 2013 BioBlitz.
  • Animal Intelligence
    • Have you ever wondered why humans have created complex societies and technologies that no other animal species has even approached? The Apes vs. Toddlers Science Update looks at social cognition, which is thinking based on interactions with others, and how it sets humans apart from other animal species.
    • Dolphins and other marine mammals have pretty big brains compared to the size of their bodies. That’s one indication of high intelligence, and anyone who has seen them perform at an aquarium or zoo can attest to that fact. The Dolphin Brains Science Update introduces us to one scientist who’s trying to find out how dolphins got so brainy.
    • Watch a video about baboons learning to read English.
    • Vertebrates aren't the only smart animals out there. Paper wasps, which can recognize each other, seem to process faces in ways similar to humans, and nematode worms have a surprisingly complex communication system.
    • The whole area of human learning and learning in other animals can be a fascinating one. Two Science Updates look into the topic: Word Associations looks at researchers who are studying exactly what happens in the brain when it learns and remembers information. In Human Language, researchers look at how language is not only universal among humans, but also has universal properties that are unique to the language of human beings.

Related Educator Resources

  • The educator's guide to the book can be found here.
  • Science NetLinks is still working on the lesson for this book (check back soon!), but offers two lessons based on Pamela's previous SB&F Prize winning book, The Frog Scientist: The Frog Scientist 1: The Mystery of the Disappearing Frogs and The Frog Scientist 2: Schoolyard Field Investigation.
  • Crow Smarts is one of the Scientists in the Field books. In addition to Turner's two titles, you can find resources for other award-winning titles in that series here on Science NetLinks: Sy Montgomery's The Octopus Scientist lesson and Spotlight on Science Writers post and Kathryn Frydenborg's Wild Horse Scientists Spotlight post. While Science NetLinks doesn't have resources on Loree Griffin Burns' SB&F Prize winning The Hive Detectives, we do have resources on two of her other books: Citizen Scientists (lesson) and Handle with Care (Spotlight on Science Writers post).
  • You can find information on Gavin Hunt, who is profiled in the book, here. He works at the University of Auckland's School of Psychology, where he's researching cognition and culture in New Caledonian Crows.
  • In the Bird Beaks lesson, students explore the relationship between a bird's beak and its ability to find food and survive in a given environment.
  • In the Bird Populations lesson, students learn how scientists discern patterns and changes in bird populations.
  • In the Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard lesson, students engage in meaningful observation of the natural world by sketching common birds in their area.
  • This trio of lessons look at the difference between innate and learned behaviors in animals: In The Beagle Brigade lesson, students develop their understanding of animal behaviors and the interaction of innate abilities and learned behaviors. In Exploring Learned and Innate Behavior, students explore the differences between learned and innate behavior among humans and monkeys. Pets: Oh Behave also allows students to develop an understanding of how innate and learned behaviors and the environment determine behavior.


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