Crow Smarts

What You Need


  • Classroom copies of Crow Smarts, by Pamela Turner
  • Notebook paper and pencils
  • Bucket to pass to collect Found Objects that can be used/modified  as tools
  • Stash of Found Objects to be made into tools
  • If choosing Motivation Option B for the Tool Fish Pond
    • old tools (hammers, screwdriver, etc) and objects or recyclables
    • 1 clothes line and 1 old sheet 
    • 2nd clothes lines 






Crow Smarts


To explore what a tool is and if people are the only tool makers.


This lesson uses the book, Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird, by Pamela S. Turner with photographs by Andy Comins, to explore the fascinating field of animal intelligence studies through the case example of New Caledonian crows.This book is one of the winners of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books & Films, is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

These South Pacific Island birds are redefining ideas on animal intelligence due to their deft fashioning, use, and modification of tools. In the book, the author and a photographer document the research that Dr. Gavin Hunt, a field scientist in New Caledonia, performs to demonstrate problem-solving by crows using levers, sticks, and leaves they shape into probes as tools to obtain food. In the wild, they extract grubs from the logs with these tools. In experimental lab situations, they used sticks and stones to open a box that released a stick long enough for them to hold in their beaks to poke and scrape a piece of meat reward from a tube toward their mouths.

Students will explore the nature and methods of scientific inquiry and tool use and learning in animals. The class will perform: 1. a group reading of the book and discussion based on questions and answers provided in this lesson; 2. watch live field study videos of crows learning to solve problems; 3. learn scientific field methods, such as keeping field journals to tally observational results; and 4. create a Crow School Caption Comix booklet they each write that summarizes key findings about "a day in the life of a learning crow."

As you go through this lesson, you should be aware that middle-school students who can use measuring instruments and procedures when asked to do so often do not use this ability while performing an investigation. Typically students asked to undertake an investigation and given a set of equipment that includes measuring instruments will make a qualitative comparison even though they might be competent to use the instruments in a different context (Black, 1990). It appears students often know how to take measurements but not what or when.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

    Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
    Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
    Analyze the author's purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text.
    Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.7
    Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation

Planning Ahead

These websites set the context for teaching this lesson:

Smart Crows at Work and Play has videos about crows using tools in the wild, experiments with crows, crows at play, and new crow research. It's a fun and authoritative scientific overview coordinated by the author of the book that unifies this lesson.

Are Crows the Ultimate Problem Solvers? is a three-minute segment of a BBC video series, Inside the Animal Mind. Footage shows the remarkable step-by-step process a New Caledonian crow invents to solve an eight-step problem. It provides engaging background for the topic of animal cognition, of crows in particular, and how those abilities are scientifically tested.

Discussion Guide for Crow Smarts provides classroom prompts, discussion outlines, teaching goals, and standards to help you frame lessons based on the book.

For a general overview of animal intelligence, see the NOVA series, Inside Animal Minds.

If possible, have on hand classroom copies of Crow Smarts, by Pamela S. Turner, enough so students can read the book individually. Or you can read the book with the class if only one copy is available.

If choosing Motivation Option B: To set up the pond, assemble the objects that may be recognized as tools, and those not commonly thought of as tools. Second, hide them behind a curtain by hanging a clothes line in your classroom and draping an old sheet over it so the Tool Fish Pond objects are hidden from view. A second clothes line can be used as a "fishing" pole for the students to toss over to "fish for a tool."


You should energize and engage the class by having them watch videos of crows solving problems. Talk about what they see, the questions it raises, and the students' preconceptions it may challenge.

Students should start by using their Crow Smarts student esheet to watch a three-minute video by BBC Two, Are Crows the Ultimate Problem Solvers? This is the footage of the remarkable eight-step, problem-solving crow video listed in Planning Ahead. This BBC Two video has the bonus of showing how observational science is done, via an appealing young field researcher, Alex, observing his crow, 007. Students should answer the questions on the Crow Smarts student sheet. You can find answers to the questions on the Crow Smarts teacher sheet.

Next, empower the students to become field scientiests. They should use their esheet to go to Crow Smarts: Crows Using Tools in the Wild and watch the "Crow Versus Grub" video showing the New Caledonian crows in action using tools to get grubs. Ask sparking questions to get them into a mindset of critical, creative inquiry typical of scientists. There are no right answers here. The point is to connect students through focused conversation so they form a productive, problem-solving group that, through verbal exchange, produces iterative insights and understanding. 

  • What are some comments the 007 researcher, Alex, might make about the video we just watched?
  • What are some of the steps involved in tool-using and tool-making?
  • Is the sequence of steps important? Why or why not?
  • If you wanted to recreate the set-up seen in the wild in a lab to test 10 crows, what would you need? One log? Leaves—wet or dry? What kind? What kinds of sticks? Or are leaf stems sufficient? A food reward?

(Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)

To demonstrate the expanded concept of tool and how a crow uses one, summarize how scientists think the Pandanus leaf tool came about, referencing the four illustrations on pages 36-37 in the book. Students should use their esheet to watch "Dr. Gavin Hunt Explains," also on the Crow Smarts: Crows Using Tools in the Wild site. Talk about how the class could replicate that process with the plants available to them. Would a corn leaf  be a good substitute? A maple leaf? A blade of grass? Why or why not? (Hint: think striated veins in the leaf blade.) 

Recap for them the basic steps the book's four pictures show:

  • A crow ripping the leaf from the plant
  • How early tools were a uniform, wide blade, like a Popsicle stick
  • That improved success getting food led to shaping the tool so it had a narrow and a fat end
  • Over time, further success finding food produced a tool that is even more shaped—it has a stair-step shaped edge that makes it easy to hold, flexible, and maneuverable, yet stiff

With this model in mind, ask students to rethink what a tool is, tool-making, tool-use, and animals' ability to problem solve and to share their thoughts by completing this sentence: "Before this class, I thought tools were used only by____________." (Hint: Some might know the work of Jane Goodall that rocked the world in 1960 by showing that non-human primates use tools. If there is time for this important context, or to reach out to girls in particular, reference Jane Goodall's web site.)

Check for students' pre-requisite knowledge by conducting the What Is A Tool? activity. This can be done in one of two ways, A or B, depending on time and resouces.

What Is a Tool? Version A

This no-prep version is a discussion of tools and tool use. In it, you should ask each student to name a tool, freely offering prompts, such as:

  • Is a pencil a tool? Is the button on my sweater a tool? Why or why not? What's your evidence? Can you think of an analogy in a scientific, engineering, or mechanical device acknowledged as a tool?
  • Is this bottle a tool? Why or Why not?
  • Must a tool be used in one exact way to be a tool (i.e., must a toothbrush only clean teeth or a hammer pound nails)?

What Is a Tool? Version B

In this prep version, you will need to take 15–30 minutes to create a Tool Fish Pond. First, assemble a pond following the instructions in the Planning Ahead. Second, students should throw a "fishing line" over the curtain. When they do so, you should attach an object. Third, you should then tug on the line when the object is hooked, and the student reels it up. They have 20 seconds, which the class may count off with singing, tapping, or finger snapping, to prepare. Then the student tells and/or acts out a "Tool Story"—it can be a true established use of the object or a novel, fictional use. Depending on how imaginative and disciplined the class is, you could have the student silently act out the story, as in charades, and the kids guess the problem being solved by this. Prompt the students to think in terms of simple machines.

Once you're done with either version of What Is a Tool?, your class can co-create a hypothesis definition of what constitutes a tool: A rock? A feather? A paperclip? You can help shape the definition to arrive at a statement similar to: "A tool is an object that can be held, turned, pressured, or otherwise manipulated to perform work that solves a problem or performs a service." 


Crow School Caption Comix and Guide to Making and Using Tools
In this section of the lesson, students should read Crow Smarts and then complete a graphic novel/comic in the voice and mind of a New Caledonian crow. The point is to take a crow's eye view of problem-solving, a scientist's understanding about tool use, and the evolving concept of animal intelligence in a fun and engaging way that prompts insight and understanding.

Working in groups, students should first read Crow Smarts aloud, passing it to take turns if copies are limited. When finished, they should recap the reading with these questions.

  • Name at least four words scientists use that describe intelligence. 
    • (Page 2. Intelligence involves the ability to: reason, understand, remember a goal, imagine, invent, create.)
  • How does the leaf-stick tool work to reward the crow? What is the crow's motivation to do this? Scientists often make analogies to understand new or complex phenomena. What anaology do you see in how a crow uses tools? 
    • (Page 6. Crows use a tool like a "fishing pole." Page 11. Crows can actually hear the grubs in the log. Then a crow pokes the stick in a hole that is too small for its beak, a soft, wormlike beetle larva called a grub bites onto the stick (see pages 13 and 17 for closeup). The crow has a nibble! It can pull out the stick with the grub on the end and eat it. The motivation is food!)
  • How do scientists define tool behavior?
    • (Page 9. It is the use of an unattached object to manipulate something else.)
  • Why don't normal animal activities like a beaver building a dam, count as tool use?
    • (Hint: the beaver does this all with its body's attached parts: teeth, paws, claws, tail for ruddering in swimming and balance on the land.)
  • Think about the researcher Gavin. He spent thousands of hours watching crows and the forest itself. Why are field notes important? 
    • (Pages 14-15. In 1993, by watching two crows, he compared them and saw the sticks were differently shaped, that the birds seemed protective of the sticks, and upon closer look, there was dirt on one end. This told him several things: The crows' use of the stick was intentional and purposeful. It was a tool! Their protective behavior of the sticks and their stashing of them to retrieve them later, showed they valued their tools. See tool variety on page 25, including hooks.)
  • Is intelligence all about having a big brain? What are some pros and cons about a big brain?
    • (Page 21. No. Big brains aren't needed for many life forms. Jellyfish actually lack a formal brain structure, yet complete complex life cycles. Pros for a big brain include that it supplies enough tissue and cells called neurons to perform multiple complex tasks: vision, language, imagining other people's realities and working with it, a trait called empathy. Cons for a big brain include that it takes up a lot of room [how would a bird fly with a big heavy brain?] and takes a lot of energy—food, grubs!—to run. Big brains also take a lot of parenting to protect the baby's growing brain. Very few animals have childhoods in which they grow up protected by an adult because it is risky for both parent and young: predators can hunt them easily. That's why big brains are rare among animals.)
  • Why were birds historically thought to be, well, "bird-brained"—incapable of thought and powered instead by instinct?
    • (Page 27. Review the graphic cutaway that makes this point: Bird brain anatomy lacks the brain structure scientists historically associated with intelligence—a part called the neocortex. That led early scientists who dissected dead birds to think birds relied on instinct, not thought, to navigate the world. But scientists now know there are many different kinds of brain structures capable of producing complex thinking—not just the neocortex. In birds, a part called the pallium does complex information processing. Bird brains aren't primitive, they are just wired differently to think. Is it possible the early scientists were being "human-brained" in their inability to imagine the possibility that brains can be wired differently?)

From the videos they watched, what they read in Crow Smarts, discussions, and tool definitions, students should integrate key concepts in a Crow School Caption Comix they author, working in groups. The Comix retells the story of Munin, the New Caledonian crow, as he solves the three-part puzzle experiment described in the book on pages 55-57.

Break students into groups. Provide them with the Crow School Caption Comix student sheet. The student sheet shows a New Caledonian wild crow working on a problem-solving experiment.

Once students have discussed the main actions, they should use the Crow School Caption Comix student sheet to create captions about what the crow might be thinking. Students should fill in the eight caption bubbles by imagining what the crow, Munin, might think. You can use the Crow School Caption Comix teacher sheet to help assess student work.

This exercise produces several student-authored Crow School Caption Comix books, one per student group (size can vary). When finished, students can go on an Author Tour and take their books to the kindergartners to be Reading Buddies to them, teaching them about Crow School.


Crow's Tool Box: An Assessment Game

For the Assessment, students should integrate and apply their learning to perform several scientific field actions that are related to animal intelligence and tool use based on the model of the pandanus leaf tool described in the book and illustrated on pages 36-37.

You can follow these directions to help guide students through this activity.

  1. Pass an empty bucket around to students.
  2. Each student places an object in it—a penny, a crayon, a wad of paper, etc. (You should have a stash and may contribute, too)
  3. After students have placed objects in the bucket, begin a second circuit of passing in which students each take turns withdrawing an object from the bucket of Found Objects.
  4. Students have 15 minutes to observe, study, invent, and interpret the object as a tool. They should invent a use for it using scientific inquiry and imaginative problem-solving to come up with a tool of use to an animal they know or make up. After 15 minutes, students take turns presenting their tool to the class, instructing them in its use and how it solves a problem. Students in the audience should record the tool and its use in a field guide they create on notebook paper, creating Crow's Tool Box User's Guide. When finished, you can compile all student entries to create a complete class field guide.


You can help deepen students' exploration of animal intelligence, tool use, and the nature of science by assigning them an Advanced Found Object problem-solving challenge.

For this challenge, the class should test its tool-making, tool-using, and collaborative problem-solving ability by solving a specific problem with the tools the class co-creates from passing the bucket and contributing random "found" items. 

The Problem: Crow wants to help Dog escape from its kennel. From Crow's roost tree, it looks like Dog spends her days with her nose jammed between wires of a fence. All it would take is to unlock that gate. That's the kind of thing Crow does in her sleep.

Your assignment: As a class, split in two groups. Take 15 minutes during which half the class designs the lock, including sketching a blueprint of how the gate is secured (i.e., with a shoelace? a padlock?). The other half of the class is to generate a Found Object bucket of potential tool-like implements that could be used to help Dog escape. At the end of 15 minutes, the two teams join and pool their information about the lock and the items available to use as tools, and everyone collaborates to act smart like a crow to unlock the gate and liberate Dog.

If your students would like to learn more about the author of Crow Smarts, Pamela S. Turner, they can read the Spotlight on Science Writers: Pamela Turner. This post provides information about her work on the book as well as other related resources.

You also can deep students' exploration of animal intelligence by guiding them through these Science NetLinks lessons:

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards