Animal Intel
Lesson Overview

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Grade Level: 9 – 12

Topic/Subject Matter: Biology/Living Environment

Time Allotment: 2 – 3 class periods, plus homework

Overview: When we think of the world’s most intelligent animals, we usually think of mammals such as dolphins and chimpanzees, or maybe even dogs, elephants, and sheep.  Only recently have scientists begun to realize that crows – who possess exceptional problem-solving, tool-making, and social skills – deserve a place on that list as well.  In this lesson, using video segments from NATURE episode “A Murder of Crows,” students will explore different aspects of animal intelligence, with a focus on crows.  Students will also begin to look at the process of scientific investigation, and how conducting experiments contributes to knowledge and understanding of animal intelligence.

Media Resources:

Nature: “A Murder of Crows,” selected segments

Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page.

Clip 1: “As the Crow Flies”

Researchers from the University of Washington conduct a long-term experiment to see if crows can pass information down from one generation to the next.

Clip 2: “Hook, Line and Sinker”

On the tiny, remote island of New Caledonia, crows are much smarter than anyone ever expected


National Geographic | Animal Minds – Photo Gallery

This photo gallery from National Geographic Magazine Online features several different animal species and the specific characteristics marking their intelligence.

American Crow, Identification, All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This page, from the “All About Birds” project of Cornell University’s famous Ornithology Lab, provides a wealth of background information on the American Crow species.

Friend or Foe? Crows Never Forget a Face, It Seems –

This article, published in the New York Times in 2008, provides an overview of Dr. John Marzluff’s experiment on facial recognition, conducted with crows on the University of Seattle campus.


Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry

As a result of activities in grades 9–12, all students should develop

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Understandings about scientific inquiry


  • IDENTIFY QUESTIONS AND CONCEPTS THAT GUIDE SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATIONS. Students should formulate a testable hypothesis and demonstrate the logical connections between the scientific concepts guiding a hypothesis and the design of an experiment. They should demonstrate appropriate procedures, a knowledge base, and conceptual understanding of scientific investigations.
  • DESIGN AND CONDUCT SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATIONS. Designing and conducting a scientific investigation requires introduction to the major concepts in the area being investigated, proper equipment, safety precautions, assistance with methodological problems, recommendations for use of technologies, clarification of ideas that guide the inquiry, and scientific knowledge obtained from sources other than the actual investigation. The investigation may also require student clarification of the question, method, controls, and variables; student organization and display of data; student revision of methods and explanations; and a public presentation of the results with a critical response from peers. Regardless of the scientific investigation performed, students must use evidence, apply logic, and construct an argument for their proposed explanations.
  • COMMUNICATE AND DEFEND A SCIENTIFIC ARGUMENT. Students in school science programs should develop the abilities associated with accurate and effective communication. These include writing and following procedures, expressing concepts, reviewing information, summarizing data, using language appropriately, developing diagrams and charts, explaining statistical analysis, speaking clearly and logically, constructing a reasoned argument, and responding appropriately to critical comments.


  • Scientists usually inquire about how physical, living, or designed systems function. Conceptual principles and knowledge guide scientific inquiries. Historical and current scientific knowledge influence the design and interpretation of investigations and the evaluation of proposed explanations made by other scientists.
  • Scientists conduct investigations for a wide variety of reasons. For example, they may wish to discover new aspects of the natural world, explain recently observed phenomena, or test the conclusions of prior investigations or the predictions of current theories.
  • Scientific explanations must adhere to criteria such as: a proposed explanation must be logically consistent; it must abide by the rules of evidence; it must be open to questions and possible modification; and it must be based on historical and current scientific knowledge.
  • Results of scientific inquiry—new knowledge and methods—emerge from different types of investigations and public communication among scientists. In communicating and defending the results of scientific inquiry, arguments must be logical and demonstrate connections between natural phenomena, investigations, and the historical body of scientific knowledge. In addition, the methods and procedures that scientists used to obtain evidence must be clearly reported to enhance opportunities for further investigation.
Content Standard C: Life Science

As a result of their activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of

  • Biological evolution
  • Behavior of organisms


[See Unifying Concepts and Processes]

  • Species evolve over time. Evolution is the consequence of the interactions of (1) the potential for a species to increase its numbers, (2) the genetic variability of offspring due to mutation and recombination of genes, (3) a finite supply of the resources required for life, and (4) the ensuring selection by the environment of those offspring better able to survive and leave offspring.


  • Organisms have behavioral responses to internal changes and to external stimuli. Responses to external stimuli can result from interactions with the organism’s own species and others, as well as environmental changes; these responses either can be innate or learned. The broad patterns of behavior exhibited by animals have evolved to ensure reproductive success. Animals often live in unpredictable environments, and so their behavior must be flexible enough to deal with uncertainty and change. Plants also respond to stimuli.
  • Like other aspects of an organism’s biology, behaviors have evolved through natural selection. Behaviors often have an adaptive logic when viewed in terms of evolutionary principles.
  • Behavioral biology has implications for humans, as it provides links to psychology, sociology, and anthropology.


For each pair or group of students:

  • Computer with internet access


Students will be able to:

  • Describe patterns of behavior and/or characteristics in animals that connote intelligence;
  • Evaluate the importance of crows’ advanced skills as they relate to human intelligence;
  • Identify steps, materials, and procedures required to conduct a scientific investigation;
  • Design an experiment, based on the scientific method, to assess animal intelligence.

Prep for Teachers:

Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments and websites used in the lesson.

Download the video clips used in the lesson to your classroom computer(s) or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s internet connection.

Bookmark any websites that you plan to use in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

The New York Times website ( operates under a paid subscription plan.  If you do not have a subscription to the paper, you will still be able to access 20 articles for free per calendar month, including the article used in this lesson.  Please see their Help page for more information.

For Learning Activity 2, you may want to suggest your students start their research with the following websites containing reliable, contemporary information pertaining to animal intelligence research and experimentation:

For the Culminating Activity, if students need guidelines or suggestions on how to design an experiment using the scientific method, you may direct them to the following websites containing step-by-step explanations of the scientific method and experimental design:

Proceed to Lesson Activities

  • Melike

    I love your logo. I wonder who drew?

  • Chris

    Hi, I just got done watching the crow show and it was great. My cat was sitting on the edge of the table watching it on the big screen and it was so funny watching him watching the cat stalking the crows. My cat then started going around to every window looking for the crows.

    When you started talking about crow sounds and signals, I was amazed. Lately I have been pulling all-nighters straight through to the sunrise and I have noticed that in the morning when I come downstairs to the kitchen (and with back patio door open) I hear the crows on cue when I open the refrigerator. I said to myself, I bet they hear me in here and that must be some sort of warning signal. It was just too coincidental. I thought this show was amazing and just wanted to share my experience with crows. I’m also really happy PBS is around and still on the air. It’s 99% of what I watch and love it. Thanks so much!

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