I spy with my raven eye…

…someone trying to steal my lunch.  Turns out, humans are not the only ones wary of peeping Toms; new research shows raven can imagine being spied on by a competitor.



The other day my friend and I were having a very merry time at the thrift store when, without cause or provocation, this women decides to up and ruin our trip.  Well really, she simply spotted the same gorgeous caste iron dutch oven that my friend wanted and reached it first, but the consequence was the same (it was a tragically beautiful dutch oven). This dynamic-my friend having her own intentions (to obtain and own that dutch oven for herself) and recognizing that this other women had her own intentions (to obtain and own that dutch oven for herself) is something so second nature to being human we rarely give it any thought.  But the ability to attribute mental states to those around us is an incredibly profound and complex cognitive task.  Understanding if this ability, called Theory of Mind, exists in other animals has been among our top interest as ethologists.

Like other corvids, ravens cache food and, as a consequence, run the risk of their caches being stolen by others.  It has long been known that if ravens can see that they are being watched, they behave differently when it comes to caching than if they are alone.  This is interesting, but doesn’t necessarily speak to whether they posses theory of mind because of the confounding effect of “gaze cues”.   Basically, the correlation between head cues and competitor behavior make skeptics doubtful about non-human animals having the ability to know what others might be seeing.  So raven master Thomas Bugnyar and his colleagues Reber & Bruckner recently published an elegant study to address just this issue.

By training captive ravens to look through a peephole, and then allowing them to cache food with the peephole opened or closed, the researchers were able to show that ravens behaved as if they were being watched when they could hear ravens and the hole was open, but not when they could hear ravens but the peephole was closed.  What this suggests is that ravens are capable of remembering their own experience of looking through a peephole to see into another room, and can imagine that another bird might be doing the same thing even if they cannot see this bird.


Experimental set up.  Bugnyar et al. 2016.  Nature Communications

Theory of mind and imagination (which are not mutually exclusive) are the cornerstones of what makes for a powerful cognitive toolkit and have long been thought to be uniquely human.  As we continue to build on the body of work showing non-human primates, corvids and some other animals posses some of the same skills we do, many will be challenged to redefine what it means to be human.  Personally, framing the question that way doesn’t interest me.  To me the more interesting question is not how are humans different from ravens, but how are we the same and why? What is it about being human and being raven that make possessing imagination important?  Fortunately there is still loads more research to be done, and when it comes to teasing out this question I can only imagine the possibilities.

Literature cited:

Bugnyar, T., Reber, S.A., and Buckner, C.  (2016) Ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors.  Nature Communications 7.  doi:10.1038/ncomms10506




Filed under Crow behavior, crow intelligence, New Research, Raven behavior, Raven intelligence

5 responses to “I spy with my raven eye…

  1. gardengalfox

    Interesting. Just getting started watching Ravens. One just scooped up about 5 pieces of Health Nut bread and dropped them in my birdbath. Then he ate the soaked pieces one by one. I have seen this behavior before. In past years I always knew they were visiting by how gunked up the water would be. (Sandhill Cranes also drink out of and preen by this birdbath as well as other birds and squirrels but they don’t dirty it that much!)
    Ravens also make some very unbird-like vocalizations when communicating to one another. One woke me up this morning vigorously taping on our RV skylight and seemingly looking in. But he could have just been looking at his reflection. I wish I could attach a pic or two. In any case, TY for the reading recommendations and happy research. PS I wish I could attach a pic or 2!

  2. Teresa Sielsch

    Great reading. I too watch the crows pick up the nuts or dog food and take them to my bird bath for softening. I really enjoy when one will fill their mouth with peanuts (not in the shell) and then take them elsewhere in the yard and bury them, they cover them with a leaf or two. I did see one come back later in the day and find what he had hidden and of course ate it. I wonder if the squirrels end up finding some of their stashes or because they bury it, does the squirrel not find it. They are such a joy to observe. I have about 6 of them that visit every morning once I go out to leave them some food. They will sit on my fence until I go back in the house before coming down to the yard. I’m hoping with time they will trust me more and let me sit a distance away while they feast. They are so timid when they eat though, even before picking up something, they tend to jump back a bit once they put it in their mouth. Sometimes a seagull will fly in to eat and then the crows don’t seem so timid to indulge, is it because they trust if the seagull is eating it, it must be safe? Are they always timid while eating?

    • Hi Teresa, thank you for your compliment. In answer to your question, it really depends on how habituated the crows are to people feeding them. On the UW campus, and frankly across Seattle, the crows are incredibly bold. Even following people around they see munching on snacks. On other areas they are as you describe. Just keep at it (within reason of course, don’t overdo it and feed them like mad) and they’re relax with time. I’ve observed the same phenomenon with gulls. I suspect it’s a combo of gulls removing resources they want forces them to be a little more bold, and they act as a sort of guinea pig, testing the waters on behalf of the crows. Many people do not realize that crows are incredibly neophobic (scared of new things) in contrast to other urban birds. Their baseline is that they’re going to be more cautious than you might expect.

      • Teresa Sielsch

        Thank you for responding. Yes, I suspected the crows in my area are just not used to people or being fed perhaps. I’ve been feeding them since about June 2017. This morning they came to the yard while I sat outside feeding the jays and squirrels. I think they are getting to trust me somewhat. I was able to startle a seagull away that had landed in the yard without the crows flying off too. I can’t believe how fast the seagulls wolf down anything so that is why I try to startle them away. Between the seagulls and squirrels I also think the crows will miss out getting their share. The crows do really LOVE the organic ground beef I put out for them. I have two old laundry line T poles that I put tiny bites of the ground beef on and they seem to like that the best. Probably too because it’s off the ground. I feed them only healthy food, as I’m a health nut too. I’m a vegetarian but I buy the beef just for the crows. 🙂 There is one that seems to have some sort of growth on it’s eye and I can’t determine yet if it’s over his entire eye or not. I’m hoping to get a good photo of it at sometime and would like to share it with you if and when I do. They are so fascinating to watch and I just wish I could tell them apart better. I can only can tell the one with the eye issue right now.

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