In this activity, students will perform an experiment that replicates the dilemma faced by birds in acquiring food from a confined area. Students will be given a variety of objects to use as “tools” and explore various ways of extracting the food item from an enclosed shoebox without directly using their hands. Students will compare and contrast which tools worked best and use problem-solving skills to design and develop unique methods for extracting the food item from the shoebox.
Grade Level: 6th – 8th Grade
National Standards: NS.5-8.1, NS.5-8.3
New Caledonian crows are among only a handful of species on Earth that have been shown to use tools. These crows use twigs to fish beetle larvae out of dead trees. Reporting in Science, Christian Rutz and colleagues explore why the birds have evolved to possess this rare trait.
Birds normally rely on their beaks to help them capture and consume prey. However, some of them can have trouble if prey hides deep within the ground or inside a tree. Some animals, such as the New Caledonian crow, have developed the ability to use objects in their environment as tools to obtain their food. This unusual behavior is not found in many bird species. Scientists are baffled as to how New Caledonian crows developed this behavior over the course of their evolution.
Pencils – one for each pair of students
Scissors – one pair for each pair of students
Ziploc bags for “food”
Shoeboxes (with lids) – one for each pair of students
Clay – a small piece for each shoebox
Items to be used as “tools”:
Clothespins – one for each pair of students
Straws – one for each pair of students
Skewers (wooden) – one for each pair of students
Tweezers – one pair for each pair of students
Pipe cleaners (can be bent to make a hook) – one for each pair of students
Items to be used as “food”:
Dried pasta (spiral or shells)
Dried red kidney beans
Dried white lima beans
Tool: an instrument or device that aids in accomplishing a task.
Cognition: the process of acquiring knowledge by the use of reasoning, intuition or perception.
What to Do
Prep: Cut a small hole in the lid of each shoebox that is being used. The hole should be just large enough for a tool and food item to fit through. Place a small piece of clay inside the bottom of the shoebox just below the opening of the hole. Food and tool items from the list above can be substituted with other materials if needed.
1. Start the lesson by having students watch the SciFri video, “Crows Using Tools to Catch a Fatty Meal”. Ask students to define a tool and to give examples of tools that they use in their everyday lives. Discuss with students how they learned to use these tools. How do they decide what tool to use?
2. Pair the students up. Hand out to each pair of students: a straw, a clothespin, a skewer, a pair of tweezers, a pipe cleaner, and a copy of the chart at the end of this lesson.
3. Hand out to each pair of students: a gumdrop, a piece of clay, and a shoebox. Have students affix the gumdrop inside the shoebox, using the clay to hold it in place, and then cover the shoebox with the lid.
4. Tell students that they are being challenged to figure out a way to remove the food item without opening the lid and without directly touching the food item with their fingers. Do they think that any of these tools will be useful in removing the food? What does this activity remind them of?
5. Before experimenting with the tools, have students write their predictions on the chart, and why they think each tool will or will not help them remove the food item. Throughout the experimentation, encourage students to think creatively. There are various ways to use the tools to extract the food item (e.g., sucking on the straw, or combining tools).
6. After a few minutes of experimenting, have students record their observations and results for each of the tools in removing the food item.
7. Remove the food item in the shoebox and replace it with the next food item on the list. Continue the experiment until students have tried removing all of the food items on the list with all of the tools.
8. Discuss each pair of students’ results with the entire class. How long did it take for students to remove each item? Which tool was the most efficient? Did the type of tool used depend on the type of food item? Did students immediately have a sense of which tool to use for each food item, which tool would work best?
The ability to manipulate tools to accomplish a task was once thought to be solely a human trait. More recently, scientists have observed different groups of animals (e.g., chimpanzees, birds, octopi, fishes) that use tools in various ways. Using a tool indicates that the tool user is aware of the object and the effect the tool will have on another object, thus indicating a level of intelligence and the ability to solve problems.
New Caledonian crows are not just randomly picking up objects to use as tools. These crows select appropriate tools for certain tasks and often will make or shape their own tools, both in the lab or in the wild. They will also hold on to these tools for later use.
In this activity, students participated in a challenge, similar to that of the New Caledonian crows featured in the video, by attempting to extract a food item from a long, deep opening. Using their own cognitive skills, students experimented with different tools, processed information, and applied this knowledge to accomplish a task. An important factor to note is that these crows are not just randomly selecting objects to use as tools. They are thinking about which objects to use, indicating a more advanced level of problem solving.
Measuring cognition or thinking among animals is not an easy task, and would require a mutual agreement among scientists on what constitutes cognition. One question that arises in this debate is that even though New Caledonian crows use tools for specific needs, would they be able to apply this knowledge in a different environment?
Topics for Science Class Discussion
• How does an animal’s ability to obtain certain food items affect its survival rate?
• Are there other animals that exhibit intelligence?
• How would you devise an experiment to determine intelligence in a household pet?
• What are some primary reasons that animals use tools?
Extended Activities and Links
Extend this activity by removing the pre-set tools and inviting students to solve the problem of removing the food item from the shoebox with other items found around the classroom. How many items around the classroom can be used or made into a tool? Challenge the students to use items that are not traditionally known as tools (e.g., paper, pencils, tape).
Assign each student an animal that has been observed using tools. Have students create a presentation on that animal that includes any research findings or theories on how or why that animal developed this ability. Ask the students to include a video that demonstrates the animal using the tool.
Have student research the timeline for when and how humans began manufacturing and using tools.
View an interactive slideshow of other animals that make use of tools:
Learn how a bird’s brain structure is capable of more cognition than originally thought:
Test your pet’s intelligence:
This lesson plan was created by the New York Hall of Science in collaboration with Science Friday as part of Teachers Talking Science, an online resource for teachers, homeschoolers, and parents to produce free materials based on very popular SciFri Videos to help in the classroom or around the kitchen table.
The New York Hall of Science is a science museum located in the New York City borough of Queens. NYSCI is New York City's only hands-on science and technology center, with more than 400 hands-on exhibits explore biology, chemistry, and physics.