When I was in college it became a joke among my friends and I that they would greet or bid me farewell with the following phrase “I believe in crow intelligence.” Even as an undergrad, my passion for crow behavior and cognition was evident to my friends and family and I relished the emerging data demonstrating that this relative underdog was far exceeding our expectations of what an animal, especially a bird, could do. While I still carry this phrase as a mantra in my research, it’s something I’ve also grown cautious to keep in check. I’ll come back to this point in a minute, but for now let me rather crudely transition to some exciting new research.
The fantastic Alex Taylor and his group at Auckland University have once again dazzled us with another one of their eloquent studies on the New Caledonian crows. This time they were looking at yet another aspect of crow’s learning intelligence: the ability to observe cause and effect and exercise a new behavioral pattern i.e causal intervention. Essentially the researchers presented both the crows and two year old children with cylinder that, when hit with a block, would reward them with food. The subjects were first exposed to the set up by baiting the block with food, thereby demonstrating that, when moved in an effort to reach the bait food, the block would drop and release even more food via hitting the cylinder. Babies quickly learned how to use an unbaited block provided in a new location to access the food hidden by the cylinder, but the crows failed to make the cause and effect connection.
The researchers were apt to point out that while this failure provides a fascinating insight into the evolution of causal reasoning, it does not negate the ways in which these animals remain exceptional in this respect as well. Indeed, crows outperform children in some aspects of causal reasoning as demonstrated by the Aesop’s Fable experiments they conducted looking at object discrimination.
For me, it also provides one other important reminder: that crows are not feathered humans. Reflecting on my earlier anecdote about my iconic catch phrase, something I’ve had to come to terms with as a graduate student is recognizing my own bias regarding these animals. Occasionally, I find myself truly disappointed by results like the aforementioned one. Perhaps it’s an all-American love for the underdog, or a hope that if only people understood how smart these animals are they would show them more respect. Whatever the reason, an important area of growth for me has been acknowledging my desire to continuing showing that these animals are exceptional and being aware of when or how that might be affecting my interpretation of my results. This is indeed what it means to be a scientist. Even when I have a my civilian hat on, accepting that crows are not simply feathered humans is, I think, an important part of truly embracing the natural world for what it is: a rich source of both diversity and overlap all of which deserve our admiration and preservation.