Using Boats as Tools?
BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
For what seems like forever, scientists have hotly debated whether or not animals really know how to use tools. Based on my experience with the double-crested cormorant, the answer is unequivocally yes!
First some life-history information: The double-created cormorant is widely distributed throughout both coastal areas and inland waterways of North America. Incredibly dedicated fishermen, cormorants spend most of their non-nesting time swimming and diving after their finny quarries. As soon as they complete a fishing trip, they pop back out of the water onto a convenient limb where they spread their wings to dry them out. Unlike those of most birds, cormorant feathers aren’t coated with waterproof preening oils. This allows them to easily submerge into their watery homes and chase down the fish they depend on, but it also means that they have to be very diligent about drying their wings to avoid hypothermia.
At least one double-crested cormorant in Wakulla Springs State Park, Florida, regularly uses what I suspect would be classified as the largest tool in the history of the animal kingdom: a thirty-five-foot-long passenger tour boat that, fully loaded with forty-five people, weighs more than five tons.
Here’s what happens: As a tour boat makes it way along the designated route through the crystal-clear waters of the Wakulla River, a cormorant follows along behind. Then as soon as this clever waterbird decides the time is right (he obviously has certain criteria fixed in his avian brain) he flies directly up and over the moving boat, landing about ten feet ahead—a bold move that is also quite disconcerting for the driver.
The first time this happened to me, I was a driver in training with no tourists on board. After the cormorant flew over and settled directly in front of the boat, I slammed into reverse and just watched as the sleekly black-feathered bird disappeared under the bow. I guiltily looked around to see if anyone else had witnessed my murderous act.
You can imagine my relief when I looked back and saw the daring cormorant pop up behind the boat, none the worse for wear. What’s more he had a freshly-caught fish hanging from his beak which he summarily tossed into the air and gulped down headfirst.
Swimming with a freshly caught catfish, a Double-Crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) glides triumphantly across a coastal pond. (Photo © Gerald Marella/Shutterstock.com)
I shoved the throttle into gear and confidently started moving forward. I’m sure you can guess what happened next. Not more than another one hundred feet downriver, he came again, veering down from nowhere and plopping into the water ten feet from my boat’s bow, where I promptly ran over him for the second time. Then suddenly there he was behind my boat again, floating serenely with another fish hanging from his beak which he proceeded to toss up and swallow headfirst.
I began to sense a pattern. The cormorant was relying on the motion of the boat’s motor to churn up fish, which he then caught in his hooked bill while swimming under the hull. Sure enough, he repeated this action at least three more times before vanishing for parts unknown with his belly full of fish provided courtesy of my tour boat.
While this may not scientifically qualify as “tool use,” it sure rates that way in my book. This fish-loving dude is certainly one cool customer and a very smart bird!
Text excerpted from book: Bird Brains: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.