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For STEM Friday we are featuring the new middle grade nonfiction book Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World's Brightest Bird by Pamela S. Turner and photographs by Andy Comins, which chronicles Dr. Gavin Hunt's intriguing research into tool use and learning by New Caledonian crows.

 

Why New Caledonian crows? It turns out they have a lot going for them. They are pretty smart. Not only can they use sticks as tools to pry their food- in this case large beetle larvae - out of wood, but also they can fashion new tools by shaping and modifying twigs and stems. As more sophisticated experiments have shown, they have a remarkable ability to solve problems (see some of the videos below). They also have bigger eyes than other species of crows and their eyes are closer to the front of their head, which means they have better depth perception.

Although the special crows are fascinating enough, author Pamela Turner's discussion of Dr. Hunt's research is written with just the right touch of humor to keep young readers fully engaged. For example, she notes one of the crows is named "Crow we never got around to naming." Many of her observations are highly entertaining.

Andy Comins's amazing birds-eye-view photographs (see the one on the cover above) help us see the crows as individuals. It isn't easy to photograph active birds in the wild, and he makes us feel like we are right there studying the birds, too.

Whether you have read all of books in the Scientists in the Field series or none of them, you are going to want to pick up this one. Perfect for anyone interested in learning, animal behavior, birds, tool use, or science in general.

Below are some bird science activity suggestions that could be used to accompany the book.

Activity Suggestion 1: Building a Bird Blind

Dr. Hunt knows he might change the crows' natural behavior if they knew he was watching them, so he uses shelter to observe the crows unnoticed. The camouflaged shelter is called a "hide" or a "blind." In the field he uses a portable tent as a blind (photograph page 12 of the book), but children can design and build their own bird blind.

Gather:

  • Sheet, large piece of cardboard, or cardboard box
  • Twine, cord, rope or painter's tape
  • Twist ties
  • Paints in camouflage colors (optional)
  • Paint brushes (optional)
  • Scissors (craft knife for adults only)
  • Markers
  • Birdseed (optional)
  • Birdwatching supplies:
    • Notebook
    • Pens and pencils
    • Field guide for identifying birds
    • Binoculars (optional)
    • Clock or watch
  1. Find a location to set up the blind, either indoors or out depending on the weather and other factors. If you already have a bird feeder near a window, setting up a blind inside the window would be ideal.  Outside, look for areas where birds are active on a regular basis, such as in shrubs, trees, or near a food source.
  2. If you choose to, paint the sheet or cardboard with camouflage colors (investigate what colors birds can see and plan accordingly). Allow to dry.
  3. If you are setting up inside, cover the window with a cardboard box with the bottom facing out or tape up the sheet with painter's tape. Outside, tie the twine or cord between supports such as poles, fences or trees. Drape the sheet over the cord, or lean the cardboard against the cord, and fasten with clothespins or twist ties.
  4. Have the children stand or sit in a comfortable position. Using the markers, mark where the eye holes should go. The holes should be a small as possible so they aren't obvious to the birds, but large enough to allow for comfortable viewing. Cut out the holes.
  5. If you choose, sprinkle some birdseed in the viewing area or feed the birds to attract them (optional). Sit or stand quietly behind the blind and view the birds. Younger children may simply draw a picture of a bird they see. Older children may want to keep a more detailed record of what kinds of birds visit, what time of day, how long they stay, which direction they go, etc.
  6. Suggestion for experiment:  Do blinds really work? Design an experiment to test whether birds behave differently when observed through a blind versus when viewed from similar distances and circumstances without a blind.

Activity Suggestion 2:  Watch some videos/bird cams of the behavior of crows and other birds.

Even if you don't have the opportunity to observe bird behavior in nature, learn more about birds by watching videos like the one below and/or by visiting bird cams online (The Lab of Ornithology has a number of ongoing bird cams to get you started.)

Check Pamela S. Turner's website for many more videos of crows doing funny and amazing things.

Related:

childrens-books-for-young-birdwatchers
We have a list of children's books about birds at Science Books for Kids.

scientists-in-the-field-series-book-reviewsAlso, see our growing list of books in the Scientists in the Field Series.

Visit our birdwatching Pinterest board for many other bird-related science activity ideas.

Age Range: 10 - 12 years
Grade Level: 5 - 7
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (August 2, 2016)
ISBN-10: 0544416198
ISBN-13: 978-0544416192

Disclosure: This book was provided by the publisher/author for review purposes. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.

Several weeks ago I wrote a post about a mystery in our back yard. You may recall that bits of glass were appearing on our patio and in our yard, particularly near where we had water available. I wasn’t sure how the pieces were getting there.

After reading my post, my son “confessed” he was the source of the glass chip. It was from a broken bottle. He also pointed out, however, that he had found bits of glass mosaic near another part of our lawn where water collects periodically.

As you may have figured out from the title of the post and the feather clue, I think the culprit is a bird. We have many birds that regularly visit our yard, including house finches and a variety of doves. But the evidence points to other regular visitors:  the great-tailed grackles, Quiscalus mexicanus.

great-tailed grackle

The great-tailed grackles look like regular grackles, except the males have a much longer tail. The female great-tailed grackles are brown, whereas female regular grackles are black. The males have iridescent colors on their necks and backs, similar to pigeons. Here is a female:

great-tailed grackle

One of the most striking aspects of great-tailed grackles is the male’s display to females. The male raises his beak to the sky, straight up. A bunch of males often perform this behavior together.

great-tailed grackle

Why do I think the grackles may be involved in the glass mystery?

Clue Number 1:

Many people have reported that crows and magpies are attracted to shiny objects, and often “steal” things away to their nests.

In fact, one of their relatives, the starling, has been caught in the act stealing money from a car wash.

We do get an occasional starling, but the grackles are in the yard for long periods every day.

Clue Number 2:

Grackles are known to dunk hard pieces of food in water to soften them. For evidence, see this video. The video is rather long, but the section that shows the dunking behavior by the birds starts right after the written commentary.

Clue 3. Great-tailed grackles have been reported to drop chicken bones from trash into people’s back yards.

Clue 4. Grackles have been reported to toss berries or small stones to one another.

Although the evidence implicates the grackles, I have yet to catch them in the act. They are obviously smart and playful birds and it may be hard to find out for sure what they are up to. If I do, I will let you know.

If you are interested in bird behavior, check these books for more information.

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior by David Allen Sibley

The Life of Birds DVD by David Attenborough

If you are interested in birds and/or flight, this is a stunning movie.

Winged Migration (2001) Starring: Philippe Labro, Jacques Perrin Director: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud Rating: G Format: DVD

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