New Caledonian crows have been captured on video not only fashioning and using tools but also storing them for later use, the first time corvids have been recorded doing so in the wild, new research suggests.

Science has known for some time now that crows are highly intelligent, and previous videos have shown them at their tool-making work. But researchers from the University of St. Andrews and the University of Exeter say theirs is the first footage of the animals using their skills unaided, in their element.

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"While fieldworkers had previously obtained brief glimpses of hooked stick tool manufacture, the only video footage to date came from baited feeding sites, where tool raw materials and probing tasks had been provided to crows by scientists," said study co-author Jolyon Troscianko in a statement. "We were keen to get close-up video of birds making these tools under completely natural conditions."

In research published today in the journal Biology Letters, Troscianko and fellow researcher Christian Rutz detail their use of tiny “spy” cameras attached to the tail feathers of 19 crows.

Poring over the footage captured on the cameras' micro-SD cards (the cameras safely detach from the birds within a few days), the scientists witnessed two instances of the birds fashioning hook tools they would use to probe tree crevices for food:

It was clear to the researchers that these tools seemed precious to the birds.

“In one scene,” said Troscianko, ”a crow drops its tool, and then recovers it from the ground shortly afterwards, suggesting they value their tools and don’t simply discard them after a single use.”

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The crows (Corvus moneduloides) observed in the study live in the South Pacific, on the island of New Caledonia, and it’s thought that corvids such as these may even rival primates in the area of brain power.

They’ve honed the art of using their bills to whiddle twigs and even leaves into hooked bug-grabbers. One crow seen on the recordings only needed one minute to create its tool, before using it to probe leaves on the ground and tree hollows in search of bugs.

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The team found the birds appreciated efficiency in their labors and had a disdain for carelessness.

“Crows really hate losing their tools, and will use all sorts of tricks to keep them safe," said Rutz. "We even observed them storing tools temporarily in tree holes, the same way a human would put a treasured pen into a pen holder.”

The birds are highly attuned to disturbances in their midst, and their tropical habitat can also be a hindrance to anyone wishing to get a close look at how they earn their living. But the cameras the team employed afforded just such looks.

“By documenting their fascinating behavior with this new camera technology,” said Troscianko, “we obtained valuable insights into the importance of tools in their daily search for food.”