STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A few years ago, scientists were astonished when they saw a crow named Betty invent a new tool. She took a straight piece of wire, bent it into a hook, and used the hook to get food out of a tube. That's a tool. But that was a captive crow. What researchers really want to know is how her wild relatives make and use tools. So they trapped wild birds and stuck video cameras to them.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more on crow cam.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: The footage from Crow Cam is not the most beautifully produced nature documentary you will ever see, but keep in mind, it was shot by wild birds. One scene is labeled 4:21 p.m., flight. You see a tree branch and black crow legs. Then the bird takes off.
(Soundbite of video)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Shaky video shows blurry trees far below, bright sky, and black flashes of wing. You hear wind and cawing.
Dr. CHRISTIAN RUTZ (University of Oxford): Most people struggle to understand what's going on because it's a very unusual perspective.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Christian Rutz at the University of Oxford.
Dr. RUTZ: Everybody would expect the camera to sit on the head, or possibly on the belly or the back.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But his group found that wouldn't work. So they taped the tiny cameras to the birds' tail feathers. The camera comes down through the feathers and then points forward. It's like what a quarterback might see as he looks through the legs of the center who's holding the football.
Dr. RUTZ: To have this view where you see a look through the bird's legs is very unusual.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But Rutz knew the weird view could still be very revealing. He and his colleagues went to the tropical islands of New Caledonia near Australia. They caught 18 wild crows and taped on the cameras, which weigh less than half an ounce. A timer kept the cameras from filming for a couple of days. Otherwise they just record crows trying to tear them off. When the cameras came on, the team set up a receiver and watched the crow channel.
Dr. RUTZ: We see the live footage coming in on this little camera, so we are live and in color on the wing with the New Caledonian crow.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In an online edition of the journal Science, the team says it got about seven hours of video. The team saw two male crows using sticks and dry blades of grass to probe around on the ground. The birds held the tools in their beaks and even carried them from place to place, suggesting that they might hold on to especially good tools.
Dr. KEVIN McGOWEN (Cornell University): This is actually pretty cool.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Kevin McGowen is a crow researcher at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. He says wild birds can be hard to observe, especially in forests.
Mr. McGOWEN: To be able to watch the bird handling a tool, to know if it was on the ground or flying around, you know, that's a rare insight into the lives of birds that we just normally only can imagine.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: McGowen says he's never heard of cameras being used on flying wild birds before; neither has Greg Marshall at the National Geographic Society, which has a new exhibit on Crittercams. Twenty years ago, Marshall pioneered the idea of putting cameras on animals.
Mr. GREG MARSHALL (National Geographic): Since then, we've worked with somewhere on the order of 60 different species.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Mostly big creatures like sharks, whales and turtles. Marshall says the new work in crows just shows what can happen as cameras get smaller and smaller.
Mr. MARSHALL: And the fact that they've found a viable research question with a bird that small is remarkable and fantastic. And they've done a great job sort of extending that frontier.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Next week, Marshall is holding the first conference for researchers who stick cameras on wild animals. He says about 200 people are coming, including the crow guy.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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