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        Nature | A Murder of Crows: Animal Intel

        In this lesson, using video segments from the Nature episode "A Murder of Crows," students will explore different aspects of animal intelligence, with a focus on crows.

        Lesson Summary


        Whenwe think of the world’s most intelligent animals, we usually think of mammals such as dolphins and chimpanzees, or maybe even dogs, elephants, and sheep.  Only recently have scientists begun to realize that crows – who possess exceptional problem-solving, tool-making, and social skills – deserve a place on that list as well.  In this lesson, using video segments from NATURE students will explore different aspects of animal intelligence, with a focus on crows.  Students will also begin to look at the process of scientific investigation and how conducting experiments contributes to knowledge and understanding of animal intelligence.


        Studentswill be able to:

        • Describe patterns of behavior and/or characteristics inanimals that connote intelligence;
        • Evaluate the importance of crows’ advanced skills as theyrelate to human intelligence;
        • Identify steps, materials, and procedures required to conduct a scientific investigation;
        • Design an experiment, based on the scientific method, to assess animal intelligence.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        (2-3) class periods, plus homework

        Media Resources

        As the Crow Flies Video
        Hook, Line and Sinker Video

        Web Sites

        NationalGeographic | Animal Minds – Photo Gallery

        AmericanCrow, Identification, All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology

        "Friendor Foe? Crows Never Forget a Face, It Seems" –

        Before The Lesson

        An article from the New York Times is suggested reading for this lesson. TheNew York Times website operates under a paid subscription plan.  If you do not have a subscription to the paper, you will still be able to access 20 articles for free per calendar month, including the article used in this lesson.  Please see their Help page for moreinformation. 

        For Learning Activity 2, you may want to suggest your students start their research with the following websites containing reliable, contemporary information pertaining to animal intelligence research and experimentation:

        For the Culminating Activity, if students need guidelines or suggestions on how to design an experiment using the scientific method, you may direct them to the following websites containing step-by-step explanations of the scientific method and experimental design:

        The Lesson

        Part I: Introductory Activity

        1. Begin class by asking students what they think intelligence is. What behaviors or characteristics typically signify intelligence? Isthere a difference between “smart” and “intelligent” and, if so, what is that difference?  How can they tell if aperson is intelligent?  Is there a way totell if animals are intelligent?
        2. If students think there is away to tell if animals are intelligent, ask them which animals they think are the most intelligent?  Write their answers in a list on theboard.  (Accept all reasonable answers; list can include great apes like chimpanzees and orangutans, dolphins, elephants, dogs, cats, sheep, parrots, octopi, and mice.)  Ask students why they think the animals they listed are more intelligent than those not on the list – bears, or goldfish, or grasshoppers, for example.
        3. Ask students to think about those characteristics and behaviors that contribute to intelligence. Are they present in the animals listed?  Did they affect their suggestions?  Ask students to match intelligent characteristics and behaviors to the animals on the list.  Write them on the board next to the animals and/or have students write them down in their notebooks.  (For example: Elephants\Memory, parrots\learnvocabulary, Chimpanzees\use tools, etc.)
        4. In pairs or small groups, depending on how many computers are available, have students log on to the National Geographic “AnimalMinds” Photo Gallery.  Ask students to click through the images and note:
        • Which animals are on their list already, and which aren’t. If there are any animals in the gallery that are not on their list, students should add them at the bottom.
        • Which behaviors and characteristics are listed in the “Smarts” category and add them to their list of behaviors and characteristics of intelligence.
        • What, if anything (such asexperimental findings or studies), is listed as evidence or proof of the animal’s intelligence?
      • Discuss what makes these particular animals intelligent. Were there shared characteristics among the animals in the gallery? On the list you developed as a class? Was there anything in the gallery that didn’t come up on the class list or vice versa?  As intelligent humans, is there anything that animal intelligence tells us about ourselves
      • Part II: Learning Activity 1

        1. Look at the list of intelligent animals on the board.  Are crows on that list?  Students saw the New Caledonian crow in the “Animal Minds” photo gallery, and learned that crows are problem solvers and tool users.  Ask students what, if anything, they already know about common crows.  Have students log on to the American Crow page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to learn more about the distinctive characteristics of crows. Ask students to answer the following questions in their notebooks, or you can distribute them as a handout:
        • Where are crows commonly found?
        • Describe their family and social structures.
        • List some of crows’ special skills or behaviors.
      • Ask students, based on information they found on the American Crow page, the Animal Minds gallery, or just their general knowledge, what crows do that lead them to be considered among the most intelligent of animals? Explain to students that crow intelligence is significant because many of the behaviors and characteristics displayed by crows were once thought to be possessed only by mammals. Why is that important? Discuss.
      • Although all types of crows are found to be fairly intelligent, the most intelligent crow species is the New Caledonian crow, as students were introduced to in the Animal Minds gallery.  These birds display characteristics and skills not even found in some great ape species.  Tell students that you are going to show them a video clip showcasing some of the distinctively intelligent behavior found in the New Caledonian crow.  As they watch the video, ask students to note some of the unique or remarkable skills displayed by the birds.  Play Hook, Line and Sinker and pause approximately 3:40 in, when the lab experiment begins.  Ask students what intelligent behaviors or characteristics they noticed being displayed by the birds in the video.  Why do scientists think this is important? (Tool use was previously thought to be exclusive to great apes and humans. Only two other non-human species make tools, which is an indicator of sophisticated thought process.)
      • Resume Hook, Line and Sinker and ask students to notice what steps are taken in the experiment to fairly evaluate the crow’s intelligence.  When the clip is finished, follow up with students and review the question – how did the experiment evaluate the bird’s intelligence? (It set up steps for “meta-tool use” – using one tool to use, modify, or improve on another tool, rather than just directly using a tool.) How is the crow’s tool use relevant to human evolution? (Meta-tool use is crucial to human development and intelligence.)  What can we learn about humans from the crow’s behavior?
      • Part III: Learning Activity 2

          1. In Hook, Line and Sinker, students saw scientists conduct an experiment to assess the intelligence level of New Caledonian crows. What were the different elements of the experiment?  What did it accomplish?  Why did they conduct an experiment in a lab instead of continuing to observe the birds in the wild?
          2. Tell students that there is a particular biologist at the University of Seattle in Washington who is also interested in crow intelligence – specifically, their ability to recognize human faces.  Dr. John Marzluff has designed and conducted several experiments to measure how crows recognize human faces, and how they perceive human threats. Ask students to read the New York Times article, "Friend or Foe? Crows Never Forget a Face, It Seems" on Marzluff’s work. (You may choose to print copies of the article, or have students read online). While reading the article, have students consider the following questions about his experimentation process:
        • What were Marzluff and his team trying to achieve with their investigation?  Did they have a hypothesis or theory?
        • What materials were necessary for the investigation?
        • What were the steps taken byDr. Marzluff and the team to carry out the experiment?
        • What were the results of the investigation?

        Review students’ responses. Ask students if they think that Marzluff’s experiment was successful. Why or why not? Discuss.

        1. Tell students that you are now going to show them a video clip of the next stage of Marzluff’s facial recognition experiments with crows.  As students watch the video, have them consider the same questions above about the experiment and investigation process. Play As the Crow Flies;when the clip is finished, review students’ responses.  Do they think that this experiment was successful?  Why or why not?  Ask students why they think it is importantor significant to measure this aspect of crow intelligence?
        2. Recall the Introductory Activity and the list of intelligent animals created by students.  How can they be sure that these animals possess the intelligent behaviors and characteristics that we ascribe to them?  We can observe their behavior, but it's important to remember that, as Dr. Russell Gray pointed out in Hook, Line and Sinker, sometimes instinctual or low-level behavior can appear as if it’s very sophisticated. Either in class or as a homework assignment, have students explore additional scientific experiments and research that have been done and/or have contributed to our understanding of animal intelligence. Students should find one or two notable examples and write one page summaries of the experiments or findings, using the questions from the Marzluffarticle and video as a guideline. Students can present their summaries to the class.

        Part IV: Culminating Activity

        1. Now that students have seen and heard several examples of experiments designed to assess intelligence inanimals, tell them you would like them to create experiments of their own, using the scientific method.  (They do not have to actually conduct these experiments, just design them!)  Like tool use in the New Caledonian crows, or facial recognition and intergenerational information sharing in Dr. Marzluff’s experiments, students’ experiments should focus on measuring a specific elementor area of intelligence or mental acuity of one specific animal.  Students can work individually, in pairs, or in small groups.  This can be assigned asan in-class or homework assignment.
        2. Have students present experiments to the class, and explain how their work might contribute to a greater knowledge and understanding of animal intelligence. Encourage class discussion.
        3. As an optional extra-credit opportunity, if students have designed an experiment that can be conducted inclass or at home without harming or endangering any animals, they may conduct their experiments as designed and present their findings to the class in theform of a lab report.


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