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Research programme, collaborations and funding

About the programme


We have been studying New Caledonian crows’ cognition and tool use at the University of Auckland since 2000. Our work with free-living crows includes describing their tool skills and how they develop in juveniles. Our project has a strong emphasis on investigating the cognition and neuroanatomy underlying crows’ tool manufacture and use. Our overall objective is to see if New Caledonian crows have cognitive, morphological and neuroanatomical specialisations compared to other, non-tool-using Corvus species.

The major part of our research on New Caledonian crows involves field observations and experiments with captive birds. The cognitive experiments are carried out in a large outdoor aviary that we have constructed on the island of Maré and the neuroanatomical studies are undertaken in collaborative work at The University of Auckland.

It would not be possible to carry out this work without the assistance of the three provincial authorities in New Caledonia: Province Sud, Province Nord and Province des Iles Loyauté. We are extremely grateful to the authorities and the people of New Caledonia for all their help and support and for the opportunity to work with such remarkable birds.

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Research funding


We are primarily funded by the New Zealand government through the Marsden Fund managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand. The University of Auckland continues to be a generous funder of our fieldwork.

Visit the Royal Society of New Zealand website

In 2009 we successfully obtained a third Marsden-funded grant to study New Caledonian crows. This project runs from 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2012, and is titled “Does complex tool manufacture require specific morphological, cognitive and neural adaptations?”. In this project we are carrying out comparative studies to test if the manipulatory, neural processing and reasoning abilities of New Caledonian crows exceed those of other ‘clever’ corvids.

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Research areas related to New Caledonian crows


Our main research areas are:

  • Development of tool skills in New Caledonian crows.
  • The processes and mechanisms underlying the transmission of tool information.
  • Comparative cognition within corvidae.
  • Comparative morphology and neuroanatomy within corvidae.
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Main study sites


Our main study sites are:

  • Maré Island
  • Parc Rivière Bleue
  • Pic Ningua
  • Sarraméa
  • Farino
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(left): Mick Sibley with William on whose land we work (right): Aviary in William’s Wabao garden

Maré Island

The island of Maré is situated to the east of mainland New Caledonia in the Loyalty Islands group. It is a coral atoll approximately 50 km across. We have worked on Maré since 2003. In that time we have established a permanent study area in the south of the island with a large population of colour-banded crows. We conduct field and aviary studies at the site to learn about the cognition underlying NC crows' tool skills.

 

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(left): Parc Rivière Bleue has lowland and mountain forests (right): Crows make hooked-twig tools in the parc

Parc Rivière Bleue

Parc Rivière Bleue is the largest park in New Caledonia and well known because of the work that Yves Létocart and others have done there with kagu and bird conservation. The park is at the headwaters of the Yaté hydro Lake and mostly mountainous. We have worked in this large provincial park since 1993, mainly along the flood plain either side of the Rivière Bleue. The focus of our work is investigating the manufacture and use of hooked-twig tools and pandanus tools. We have in progress a long term investigation of temporal change in pandanus-tool design at the site through the collection of counterparts. We have colour-banded a small population of crows along the Rivière Bleue.

 

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(left): Forest on Pic Ningua is mostly above 1000m (right): Mulit-step tools made at Pic Ningua

Pic Ningua

Pic Ningua is an insular mountain (summit over 1300 m) in the centre of Grande Terre. Forest on the peak is mostly over 1000 metres above sea level and this is where we study crows. The study area is within the Botanical Reserve on the peak. Our work at Pic Ningua since 1992 led to the first description of the manufacture and use of hook tools by New Caledoniana crows. We are continuing to investigate the manufacture and use of hooked-twig and stepped pandanus tools there. We have in progress a long term investigation of temporal change in the design of stepped pandanus tools made at the site through the collection of tool counterparts from Pandanus species trees.

 

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(left): Sarraméa forest with candle-nut trees (right): A crow candle-nut dropping site

Sarraméa

Sarraméa township is in the central mountain chain of Grande Terre. Our study area consists of the low altitude slopes either side of a small river behind the town and is traversed by the tourist walking track that leads to Plateau de Dogny. We have worked at the Sarraméa site since 1999 to investigate tool manufacture and use by crows when they extract large cerambycidae larvae from dead Aleurites moluccana candle-nut trees that are common at the site. We are also investigating crows’ 'aiming' of candle-nuts onto rocks from branches and have colour-banded a small number of birds at the site. This site is where the crow footage for David Attenborough's 'The life of Birds' was shot.We have also assisted the Japanese Public TV channel NHK and German public TV to film crows there.

 

Field accommodation at Farino
Field accommodation at Farino

Farino

In 2012 we established a field station at Farino, near the administrative town of La Foa. The field station has an aviary complex for captive work with New Caledonian crows and functions as our base for studying free-living crows on Grande Terre.

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