we 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.
will be able to:
- Describe patterns of behavior and/or characteristics in
animals that connote intelligence;
- Evaluate the importance of crows’ advanced skills as they
relate 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.
(2-3) class periods, plus homework
As the Crow Flies Video
Hook, Line and Sinker Video
Geographic | Animal Minds – Photo Gallery
Crow, Identification, All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology
or Foe? Crows Never Forget a Face, It Seems" – NYTimes.com
Before The Lesson
An article from the New York Times is suggested reading for this lesson.The
New 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 more
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:
Part I: Introductory Activity
- Begin class by asking
students what they think intelligence is.
What behaviors or characteristics typically signify intelligence? Is
there a difference between “smart” and “intelligent” and, if so, what is
difference? How can they tell if a
person is intelligent? Is there a way to
tell if animals are intelligent?
- If students think there is a
way to tell if animals are intelligent,
ask them which animals they think are the most intelligent? Write their
answers in a list on the
board. (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
grasshoppers, for example.
- Ask students to think about those
characteristics and behaviors that contribute to intelligence. Are they
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:
vocabulary, Chimpanzees\use tools, etc.)
- In pairs or small groups,
depending on how many computers are available, have students log on to
Minds” Photo Gallery. Ask students to click
through the images and note:
Discuss what makes these
particular animals intelligent. Were there shared characteristics among
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
- Which animals are on their
list already, and which aren’t. If there are any animals in the gallery
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
of behaviors and characteristics of intelligence.
- What, if anything (such as
experimental findings or studies), is listed as evidence or proof of the
Part II: Learning Activity 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
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:
Ask students, based on
information they found on the American Crow page, the Animal Minds
just their general knowledge, what crows do that lead them to be
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
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
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
begins. Ask students what intelligent
behaviors or characteristics they noticed being displayed by the birds
video. Why do scientists think this is
important? (Tool use was previously
thought to be exclusive to great apes and humans. Only two other
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 –
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
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
- Where are crows commonly
- Describe their family and
- List some of crows’ special
skills or behaviors.
Part III: Learning Activity 2
- In Hook, Line and Sinker, students saw scientists conduct an experiment to
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?
- Tell students that there is
a particular biologist at the University of Seattle in Washington who is
interested in crow intelligence – specifically, their ability to
human faces. Dr. John Marzluff has
designed and conducted several experiments to measure how crows
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 onlin). 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 by
Dr. Marzluff and the team to carry out the experiment?
- What were the results of the
Review students’ responses.
Ask students if they think that Marzluff’s experiment was successful.
Why or why not? Discuss.Tell students that you are
now going to show them a video clip of the next stage of Marzluff’s
recognition experiments with crows. As
students watch the video, have them consider the same questions above
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
or significant to measure this aspect of crow intelligence?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
important to remember that, as Dr. Russell Gray pointed out in Hook, Line and Sinker, sometimes instinctual or low-level
appear as if it’s very sophisticated.
Either in class or as a homework assignment, have students explore
scientific experiments and research that have been done and/or have
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
article and video as a guideline.
Students can present their summaries to the class.
Part IV: Culminating Activity
- Now that students have seen
and heard several examples of experiments designed to assess
animals, tell them you would like them to create experiments of their
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 element
or area of intelligence or mental acuity of one specific animal.
Students can work individually, in pairs, or
in small groups. This can be assigned as
an in-class or homework assignment.
- Have students present
experiments to the class, and explain how their work might contribute to
greater knowledge and understanding of animal intelligence. Encourage
- As an optional extra-credit
opportunity, if students have designed an experiment that can be
class or at home without harming or endangering any animals, they may
their experiments as designed and present their findings to the class in
form of a lab report.