Why Ravens and Crows Are Earth’s Smartest Birds

Their brains may be tiny, but birds have been known to outsmart children and apes.

Until the 21st century, birds were largely dismissed as simpletons. How smart can you be with a brain the size of a nut?

And yet the more we study bird intelligence, the more those assumptions are breaking down. Studies have shown, for instance, that crows make tools, ravens solve puzzles, and parrots boast a diverse vocabulary.

Birds make good use of the allotted space for their tiny brains by packing in lots of neurons—more so than mammals, in fact. (Read: “Think ‘Birdbrain’ Is an Insult? Think Again.”)

But what actually qualifies a bird as smart? The definition should be broader than it is, scientists say.

“Being able to fly to Argentina, come back, and land in the same bush—we don’t value that intelligence in a lot of other organisms,” says Kevin McGowan, an expert on crows at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. “We’ve restricted the playing field to things we think only we can do.”

But if we’re talking about standard intelligence—ie. mimicking human speech or solving problems—“it always comes down to parrots and corvids,” McGowan says.

RAVENS

Members of the corvid family (songbirds including ravens, crows, jays, and magpies, to name a few) are among the most intelligent birds, though common ravens may have the edge on tackling tough problems, according to McGowan.

  
WATCH THIS CLEVER RAVEN OUTSMART A TRASH CAN

A study published in 2017 in the journal Science revealed that ravens even pre-plan tasks—a behavior long believed unique to humans and their relatives. (Related: “We Knew Ravens Are Smart. But Not This Smart.”)

In the simple experiment, scientists taught the birds how a tool can help them access a piece of food. When offered a selection of objects almost 24 hours later, the ravens selected that specific tool again—and performed the task to get their treat.

“Monkeys have not been able to solve tasks like this,” Mathias Osvath, a researcher at Sweden’s Lund University, said in a previous interview.

CROWS

While crows do nearly as well as ravens solving intelligence tests, McGowan stresses that crows have an uncanny memory for human faces—and can remember if that particular person is a threat.

“They seem to have a good sense that every person is different and that they need to approach them differently.”

TOOL-MAKING CROWS ARE EVEN SMARTER THAN WE THOUGHT

For instance, crows are warier of new people than ravens are—but conversely are more comfortable with humans they had interacted with before, according to a study published in 2015 in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

“The crows around here, they know my face,” says McGowan. While at first the birds living near the lab seemed to dislike McGowan for approaching their nests, they love him now that he’s started leaving the birds healthy treats. (Read more about how ravens hold grudges against humans.)

“They know my car, they know my walk, they know me 10 miles away from where they’ve ever encountered me before. They’re just amazing that way.”

In a now well-known study published in 2015 in the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers donned masks and, while holding dead, taxidermied crows, laid out food in areas frequented by crows in Washington State.

Almost universally, the crows responded by scolding the people—and even alerting other crows in the vicinity. When the researchers returned weeks later wearing the same masks, but empty-handed, the crows continued to harass them and were wary of the area for days after. (Read: “Do Crows Hold Funerals for Their Dead?”)

AFRICAN GREY PARROTS

While many species of parrots have a penchant for human speech, the African grey parrot is the most accomplished.

“There’s a lot going on in those little walnut brains of theirs,” says McGowan. “And they live so long that they can amass a lot of intelligence and a lot of memories.”

In the 1950s, Harvard comparative psychologist Irene Pepperberg began teaching an African grey parrot, Alex, English sounds. Before he died prematurely in 2007, Alex mastered roughly a hundred words, could use them in context, and even grasped the concepts of same, different, and zero.

Now Pepperberg is working with another African grey, Griffin, at Harvard University. Griffin can label shapes and colors, and is working on the concept of zero.

COCKATOOS

Cockatoos are the first animal observed making musical instruments.

COCKATOOS BECOME DRUMMERS TO PICK UP CHICKS

When courting, male palm cockatoos of Australia use twigs and seed pods to create drumsticks. Each male has a unique musical style—a rhythm of his own that he creates by beating the tools against hollow trees.

Though palm cockatoos don’t dance while drumming, other species have exhibited a gift for boogying to a beat.

Video of Snowball, a captive sulphur-crested cockatoo, jamming to the Backstreet Boys took the Internet by storm a few years ago. (Watch:
Snowball the Cockatoo Can Dance Better Than You.”)

Snowball’s performance is a delight to watch, but it also helped scientists discover that birds can follow a beat. By speeding the song up and down, they determined that Snowball actually does have a sense of tempo and rhythm.

GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES

Though corvids and parrots get most of the credit for being brainy, McGowan says, “There are sleeper birds out there” that we haven’t fully appreciated.

Great-tailed grackles, for instance, belong to the same family as blackbirds and orioles—a group not often considered particularly smart.

SEE HOW GRACKLES SOLVE TRICKY PUZZLES

Yet when presented with classic tests given to crows and ravens, great-tailed grackles passed with flying colors. (Read: “Watch Clever Birds Solve a Challenge from Aesop’s Fables.”)

According to the study, published in 2016 in PeerJ, the grackles were given puzzles containing food as a prize. Not only did they learn to solve the problem, when the rules of the puzzle changed, the birds nimbly adapted their strategies.

What’s more, each grackle approached the puzzle in a different way, demonstrating individual styles of thinking—a quality they share with us humans.

THE YEAR OF THE BIRD

In 1918 Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect birds from wanton killing. To celebrate the centennial, National Geographic is partnering with the National Audubon SocietyBirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to declare 2018 the Year of the Bird. Watch for more stories, maps, books, events, and social media content throughout the year.

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Are people and apes the only ones that can plan ahead? Quoth the raven ‘nevermore.’

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/07/13/are-people-and-apes-the-only-ones-that-can-plan-ahead-quoth-the-raven-nevermore/?utm_term=.9a114ac8681c

 July 13 at 2:00 PM
 Play Video 0:12
Watch ravens show off their reasoning abilities
Swedish scientist Mathias Osvath trained five ravens to use a stone as a tool to open a puzzle-like box to prove they have some of the same reasoning abilities as humans and apes. The raven’s reward: a juicy, meaty dog kibble inside the box. (Mathias Osvath)

For centuries, we told ourselves that we are special — that what separates humans from animals is our ability to reason.

But that belief has been increasingly undermined given evidence showing apes also have the intelligence to use tools, solve complex problems and even plan for the future.

Now the latest indignity: Ravens can do it, too.

On a rural research farm in Sweden, working with birds he raised from hatchlings, cognitive zoologist Mathias Osvath recently taught five ravens how to use a tool to open a puzzle-like box containing a treat. He then put his birds through a battery of tests in which they had to choose the tool, despite the temptation of a more immediate goody with the box nowhere in sight.

The birds didn’t bite. Only when the box was brought back did they use the tool they had been saving to secure the better reward — demonstrating self-control, advanced reasoning and planning.

“It’s not just the fact they have these skills independently. But to use them together to make these complex decisions, that’s what makes it so amazing,” said Osvath, in Lund, Sweden.

He compared his subjects’ calculations to the sophisticated decisions that humans make daily.

“Say you’re planning a trip to London, and you know how often it rains there. So you bring an umbrella, even though it’s not raining now where you are. That’s what we are talking about here, planning based on past experience,” Osvath said.

His study — published Thursday in the journal Science — is the latest in a growing body of work from cognitive zoologists that is tearing down assumptions about the limits of animals’ ability to reason.

Some of the more recent work has built on a 2006 study by researchers in Leipzig, Germany, who used puzzle tests such as Osvath’s raven experiment to show that apes could use tools and do planning. But scientists working with birds have long suspected some winged creatures could match the intellect of apes, particularly the wickedly smart ravens, crows and jays — members of the corvid family.

Several studies tried to measure and document those birds’ cognitive skills, mainly by focusing on their obsession with hiding food. Some found that ravens hid their food more quickly if they thought they were being watched. In other tests, scrub jays even moved their hidden food to a second spot once they realized they were being watched, in an apparent effort to ward off potential thieves.

Corvid scientists contended such behavior proved some birds have a cognitive awareness of what others might know or intend, as well as the ability to plan for future consequences. Critics shot down such conclusions, saying the birds’ reaction could be simple, instinctive responses to visual cues.

“It was a big argument, because it was difficult for some to imagine that birds could do these things, too,” said Thomas Bugnyar, a cognitive professor at the University of Vienna who has studied ravens for 20 years but was not involved in Osvath’s research. “People kept looking for holes or possible alternative explanations.”

Stepping squarely into the fray, the Swede set out to design a study to definitively prove the birds’ advanced abilities to reason.

Back in the mid-2000s, he had conducted some of the very studies hailed as proof of planning in apes. One of his most widely publicized (and amusing) reports, in fact, documented how a male chimpanzee at a Swedish zoo would leisurely collect stones and hide them in strategic places during early-morning hours just so that he could later hurl them at gawking visitors.

Osvath now hoped to do the same for ravens.

To conduct his experiment, he raised a group of ravens for five years. He witnessed their intelligence up close — playing games with them, watching as they developed complicated relationships with his graduate students. (One male raven particularly loved pecking his least favorite students on the head.)

Osvath had to modify the tool-based experiments he and others had conducted on apes, given birds’ lack of opposable thumbs. Instead of the sticks or drinking straws used with apes, the ravens got small rocks as tools to open the boxy contraption. For their reward, he provided a juicy, meaty dog kibble that they seemed to love.

In the end, the ravens matched the primates in every respect. On tests in which they had to barter for their reward by trading a specific token, the birds outscored the apes and even outperformed 4-year-old humans.

In an accompanying perspective, two University of Cambridge cognitive scientists called Osvath’s study “compelling evidence.” They wrote, “These results suggest that planning for the future is not uniquely human and evolved independently in distantly related species to address common problems.”

Based on past experiences, Osvath expects some people may be upset by his new study.

“When it comes to what animals can do compared to humans, there are those who cling to cognition as uniquely human,” he said in a phone interview, as his ravens squawked audibly in the background. “I think it has to do with religion, with this argument over whether animals have a soul or free will, and whether we are unique in the world.”

This obsession with human uniqueness, however, misses the entire goal of research into how animals think.

On that central question, he and others working with corvids believe their work poses major new questions given how birds and mammals went their separate ways on the evolutionary road some 300 million years ago. So did corvids and apes arrive at their sophisticated intelligence in totally different ways or based on similar factors and principles?

For evolutionary biologists, that and related questions loom large, with ramifications for everything from how intelligent life formed on Earth to whether extraterrestrial life might look or think like us.

“These are the real questions we should be asking about nature,” Osvath said. “Instead of just focusing on ourselves as humans, we should see ourselves as part of this world. If this study changes even one or two people’s minds about that, I will be happy.”

Read more:

Chimpanzees are animals. But are they ‘persons’?

How do dogs’ genes affect their behavior? Your pet can help scientists find out. 

Another point for elephant intelligence: They know when their bodies are in the way

Wolves and Ravens

The relationship between ravens and wolves has been a topic of comments on a post about a Petition to Stop the Slaughter of Ravens in Idaho. Whenever I’ve seen wolves on a carcass in Yellowstone, ravens are right there with them to cash in and help clean up. The ravens lead in turn wolves to potential meals, letting them do the dirty work they aren’t equipped for.

Here’s a photo of the two together in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley…

Wildlife Photography Copyright Jim Robertson

Wildlife Photography Copyright Jim Robertson

Petition to stop the slaughter of ravens in Idaho

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a small news article explaining that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game had received a permit from the United State Dept. of Agriculture (I think it was Ag) to kill 4000 ravens. This is proposed under the guise of protecting the sage-grouse, which, I believe, is being added to the endangered species list. The sage-grouse does need protection but here’s the problem. There are 19 factors that have caused their populations to decline, most the result of human activity. Predation by other creatures is #12 and ravens are the only ones that have been singled out, although there are many. Killing ravens will do little if anything at all to mitigate the problems the sage-grouse face.

I was so upset that I took it on myself to create a petition and I hope some of you will consider signing it.

There is a bias among many people against ravens and crows–their voices are not lyrical and some people see them as bullies or as symbols of evil. But recent studies show that they are among the most intelligent creatures on earth and actually may be the most intelligent. They have complex societies, young stay with their parents for years and they even have a ritual that humans would call a funeral when one of their own dies. Killing 4000 of these remarkable birds will reverberate through their community for generations.

You’ll find my petition here: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/114/2…-4000-ravens/#

And just so you know, I have NO financial or professional interest in this. It is a simple act of love. I have long adored ravens and crows. And Edgar Allen Poe, too.

Big huge thanks to all who take the time to sign.

Photo Copyright Jim Robertson

Photo Copyright Jim Robertson

Ravens: Superstars of the Slopes

I’m sure we could all use a short break from all the depressing news about Montana and Wyoming extending their wolf hunting seasons, etc., so today I’m going to talk about those who knows how to genuinely enjoy life: Ravens. Recently I took a day off the other day and went skiing in the Cascade Mountains. Skiing is the one time a human being can feel even a modicum of the joy and freedom a raven feels on a daily basis—it’s where I feel my chi. Birds like ravens must be in touch with their inner self continually.

A skier would have to have their head firmly planted in the snow not to notice the omnipresent raven at their local “hill,” be it in the Cascades, the High Sierras or the Canadian Rockies. The fanatically practical may write off the raven’s presence as simply the result of a daily supply of scavenge-able food dropped from chairlifts by skiers and snowboarders whose cold hands can’t keep a grip on their sandwiches or granola bars. But there’s another, equally rewarding reason ski hills are favorite stomping grounds for ravens: they’re fellow fun-seekers! They like watching us glide down the mountain almost as much as they enjoy participating in their own form of winter sports.

Just as the expert skier becomes one with the snow (knowing, through years of practice, the precise angle of descent and tilt of skis needed to adjust to the texture and resistance of hard pack or powder), ravens are one with the sky, correcting for gravity, wind speed and air currents by varying the slant of their wings, fine-tuning the angle of their descent with the slightest tweak of a single feather. And they really get a kick out of flaunting their talents for us lowly, flightless, earthbound two-leggers.

Many’s the time I’ve felt I was at the top of my game on the ski slopes, only to have an acrobatic raven steal the show by performing a spectacular series of forward barrel rolls or some other astonishing feat. Once I watched in amazement as a raven swooped in and broke off a dead branch from the crown of an alpine fir tree. Clasping the branch in his talons, he handed it up to his beak (like a relay racer handing off a baton) and flew on without breaking speed. I don’t know if he was trying to impress his mate or the astounded human onlookers. Maybe carrying that branch was his way of saying, “You folks have your ski poles but I’ve got this stick, so there!”

Circumpolar, ravens are one of the only birds to feel at home in the arctic during the winter, long after about every other avian has flown the coop. They’re as comfortable scaling the summits of the Himalayas as descending into the sweltering depths of Death Valley. Ravens near and far have been raised up or reviled, tarnished or exalted, demonized or deified. But to a skier, ravens are just a bunch of show-offs.

_________________________

Portions of this post were excerpted from the book, Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Ravens: the Superstars of the Ski Slopes

I’m sure we could all use a short break from all the depressing news about Montana wanting to extend their wolf hunting season, or how comedian Steve Martin had to go and bring another human baby into the world at the ripe old age of 67, rather than choosing to adopt a homeless kid…or dog for that matter.

my skiis

my skiis

 

Instead, today I’m going to talk about somebody who knows how to genuinely enjoy life: namely, the raven. I took a day off the other day and went skiing. Skiing powder is the one time a human being can feel even a modicum of the joy and freedom a raven feels on a daily basis.

 

A skier would have to have their head firmly planted in the snow not to notice the omnipresent raven at their local “hill,” be it in the High Sierras, the Cascades Mountains or the Canadian Rockies. The fanatically practical may write off the raven’s presence as simply the result of a daily supply of scavenge-able food dropped from chairlifts by skiers and snowboarders whose cold hands can’t keep a grip on their sandwiches or granola bars. But there’s another, equally rewarding reason ski hills are favorite stomping grounds for ravens: they’re fellow fun-seekers! They like watching us glide down the mountain almost as much as they enjoy participating in their own form of winter sports.

 

Just as the expert skier becomes one with the snow (knowing, through years of practice, the precise angle of descent and tilt of skis needed to adjust to the texture and resistance of hard pack or powder), ravens are one with the sky, correcting for gravity, wind speed and air currents by varying the slant of their wings, fine-tuning the angle of their descent with the slightest tweak of a single feather. And they really get a kick out of flaunting their talents for us lowly, flightless, earthbound two-leggers.

 

Many’s the time I’ve felt I was at the top of my game on the ski slopes, only to have an acrobatic raven steal the show by performing a spectacular series of forward barrel rolls or some other astonishing feat. Once I watched in amazement as a raven swooped in and broke off a dead branch from the crown of an alpine fir tree. Clasping the branch in his talons, he handed it up to his beak (like a relay racer handing off a baton) and flew on without breaking speed. I don’t know if he was trying to impress his mate or the astounded human onlookers. Maybe carrying that branch was his way of saying, “You folks have your ski poles but I’ve got this stick, so there!”

 

Circumpolar, ravens are one of the only birds to feel at home in the arctic during the winter, long after about every other avian has flown the coop. They’re as comfortable scaling the summits of the Himalayas as descending into the sweltering depths of Death Valley. Ravens near and far have been raised up or reviled, tarnished or exalted, demonized or deified. But to a skier, ravens are nothing but a bunch of show-offs.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2013. All Rights Reserved

_________________________

This post includes material excerpted from the book, Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport

Chapter Titles

Here’s the Table of Contents for Exposing the Big Game?
Foreword by Captain Paul Watson

Introduction

Chapter 1) Hide-hunting Holocaust Survivors Still under Fire

Chapter 2) An Act of Bison Altruism

Chapter 3) War on Coyotes an Exercise in Futility and Cruelty

Chapter 4) Time to End a Twisted Tradition

Chapter 5) Avian Superstar Both Athlete and Egghead

Chapter 6) From the Brink of Oblivion and Back Again?

Chapter 7) A Day in the Sun for the Hayden Wolves

Chapter 8) Critical Cornerstone of a Crumbling Castle

Chapter 9) Bears Show More Restraint than Ursiphobic Elmers

Chapter 10) The Fall of Autumn’s Envoy

Chapter 11) Inside the Hunter’s Mind

Chapter 12) A Magical World of Oneness

Chapter 13) Living Targets of a Dying Sport

Chapter 14) A Few Words on Ethical Wildlife Photography

In Closing

Acknowledgements:

Looking back, this was not, at the outset, planned as a podium from which to lambaste anyone’s hobby or heritage, but was originally intended as a venue for relating some of the behaviors and capabilities I’d observed among animals living in the wild, and as a celebration of life along the compassion continuum. However, after delving deeper into the histories of the species covered here—thanks in part to the invaluable references listed below—I found it impossible to simply depict their natural activities without also chronicling the shocking stories of abuse they have suffered at the hands of man. It would have been doing the animals a disservice to merely record how they naturally lived without at least alluding to the far-reaching and pervasive ways that human actions have altered their lives and sometimes their very natures. And the facts are clear: there has been no greater direct human impact on wildlife than the ongoing threat of hunting. As with the other pertinent and profound quotes from a variety of enlightened sources, this one from Edward Abbey proficiently puts it in a nutshell, “It is not enough to understand the natural world. The point is to defend and preserve it.”

New Interview on Wild Time

Put down your spectacles and prick up your ears for…

http://wildtimeonline.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/exposing-big-game-in-conversation-with.html

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Exposing The Big Game – in conversation with Jim Robertson

Jim Robertson is a wildlife photographer and self-taught naturalist who makes his home in a remote wilderness setting in the Pacific Northwest, beyond the reach of cable television and mercifully out of earshot of Sarah Palin’s daily sound bites.
Wild Time talked to Jim about his new book “Exposing The Big Game”, which challenges the archaic, yet officially endorsed, viewpoint that the primary value of wildlife in America is to provide cheap entertainment for anyone with a gun and an unwholesome urge to kill. Portraits and portrayals of tolerant bears, loquacious prairie dogs, temperamental wolves, high-spirited ravens and benevolent bison will leave readers with a deeper appreciation of our fellow beings as sovereign individuals, each with their own unique personalities.