Reaching the limits of crow intelligence

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.


Filed under Crow behavior, crow intelligence, Crow life history

2 responses to “Reaching the limits of crow intelligence

  1. Elle O.

    Great post, but to avoid disappointment for myself, I thought about it and came up with this question:

    Is it possible that the crows could have made the cause and effect connection, but chose not to act on it because in their lives, one should not lead to another in new situations for a good reason.

    For example:

    When I open my blinds in the morning, I hear the crow alarm go off. The Stellar Jays (all named “Lyle” now, after Mr. Lovett) also roll up. The crows and the jays know that I often, but not always, put some treats out first thing. So my blinds opening can mean tasty breakfast, but that doesn’t and translate to all blinds that open.

    I live in an apartment, and so the people above and below me, and to the sides of me all have blinds identical in color and size to mine, but the nieghbs are not rewarding the crows and jays with treats, so the crows and jays don’t waste their valuable breakfast/lunch/dinner/tea times getting all excited over any blind that opens. They only get excited about meaningful blinds, and, of course, meaningful blinds are location-specific blinds.

    Maybe it was the human researchers then, who weren’t as smart as the crows 🙂 I’m kidding on that one, of course, but my point is that maybe the crows are a different kind of smart and it wasn’t that they couldn’t make the association but the test just showed that they didn’t act on the association. I don’t know, of course, I’m not a scientist or a crow.

    To me, living with crows and all other animals, is like living with aliens and an opportunity to learn to think and communicate and share and see the world from an entirely new and alien point of view. I always think it is a shame that people try to make their dogs and cats into little humans when, in fact, the relationship can be far more interesting and challenging when we stop to think outside of the human box and get into a whole other species’ box entirely.

  2. Well the reading was OK however it really wasn’t as detailed as I would have liked to to be.i will have to study more than Google to find the answers I am looking for

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