Monthly Archives: November 2017

“Mirror, mirror on the wall

am I the smartest of them all?”

…Is not a question crows are asking, despite what you may have heard.  Because they, like basically all the super smart birds, are really, really bad at the mirror test.

Jungle crow mirror

A juvenile jungle crow catches its reflection in a window. Photo: Paul Brown

This might contradict what you’ve heard elsewhere.  But the reality is that corvid after corvid fails the mirror test.  Except two European magpies.1  That’s right,  every sound bite you’ve ever heard that corvids possess self awareness (as evidenced by their excellence at the mirror test) is based on the performance of two birds. But more on that later.

In humans, self recognition in mirrors emerges reliably when we are about two years old and it marks the beginning of a developmental process that culminates in the rich consciousness that makes us human, at least abstractly.  Given a mirror’s significance to our own understanding of the self, it’s no surprise we’re so curious to see what non-humans animals do, and more curious still to see if it can show us whether they share our possession of consciousness.  In fact, putting animals in front of mirrors and looking for signs of recognition is something we’ve been doing, at least officially, since the 1970’s.   Since those initial studies on chimps, a debate has raged over the outcomes and overall efficacy of such tests.

A mirror test is generally composed of two parts.  The first is spontaneous self directed behaviors.  In other words, when an animal encounters a mirror for the first time, does it react like it’s looking at itself with behaviors like self exploration or does it freak out at this stranger suddenly standing in front of it?  What about after it has 100 hours of experience with a mirror or a 1,000?  The second test is known as the ‘mark test.’ A mark like a red or blue dot is applied to the animal without its knowledge and we watch and see if once it gets in front of the mirror it tries to remove or at least touch the mark.

With respect to both these tests, from African grey parrots to New Caledonian crows, we see consistent failure, or at best inconsistent maybe-kinda success.2,3 For the record, while there’s no published tests that have been done on American crows, I can tell you that I’ve watched reflective windows and car mirrors ruin many a breeding crow’s afternoon plans. In Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich reports a mostly neophobic response among his captive birds, punctuated in some individuals with moderate curiosity.

So what of Gretie and Goldie, those two magpies that did show higher mark recognition when given a mirror than control birds?  There’s two problems. The first that they used stickers to mark the birds and it’s difficult to know whether it was really the mirror eliciting the behavior or if maybe they could just feel the stickers. This idea was championed after a study done on jackdaws found that birds without mirrors detected the stickers just as often as those with mirrors.4  If they had detected them equally zero times then it might just indicate that jackdaws are bad at the test, but the fact that they did detect them in both cases is what raises the alarm because it shows the birds were somehow sensing the stickers in the absence of the mirror.

The second problem is simply:  what can two birds, especially out of a sample size of five, really tell us about whether corvids understand their reflection in a mirror anyway?  Not much.

Maybe you’re thinking “well, perhaps they just don’t understand how mirrors work at all, so of course they don’t recognize themselves.”  This isn’t a bad idea but it doesn’t appear to be true.  In that study on New Caledonian crows for example, while the birds didn’t show any self recognition behaviors, they could use the mirror to find hidden food. This demonstrates that they can exploit the properties of a mirror, and understand that mirrors reflect objects in the real world.  We see the same in grey parrots.

So now that I’ve gone and dampened things, let’s just go ahead and soak the rest of that blanket.  Because even if corvids or other birds passed the mark test with flying colors, it wouldn’t necessarily mean they are self aware   which is kind of the point of the whole test.  Enter pigeons.  Since the 1980’s we’ve known that pigeons excel at the mark test with a little bit of training, just like they can excel at shape discrimination or any number of other seemingly complex tasks.5  But the ability to learn isn’t in and of itself a reflection of capacity for complex thinking.  After all, it only takes 8 days to train a spider to solve a maze.6

pigeons

Pigeons in the original Epstein et al. 1981 paper

So does failing the mirror test mean corvids don’t possess theory of mind or the capacity for self awareness?  No.  Based on other studies, particularly those in ravens, it may be more likely that a mirror test, at least in it’s most common form, is just not a biologically appropriate way to ask this question.7,8  So don’t write off the capacity of a corvid to know thyself just yet.  But maybe offer a polite “ah, hem” the next time someone marvels at the narcissism of magpies.

Literature cited

  1. Prior, H., Schwartz, A. and Güntürkün, O. (2008). Mirror-induced behavior in the magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of self-recognition.  PLOS Biology 6: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202
  2. Pepperberg, I. M., Garcia, S. E., Jackson, E. C., & Marconi, S. (1995). Mirror use by African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 109: 182
  3. Medina, F.S., Taylor, A.H., Hunt, G.R., and Grey, R.D. (2011).  New Caledonian crows ‘ responses to mirrors.  Animal Behaviour 82: 981-993
  4. Soler, M., Perez-Contreras, T., and Peralta-Sanchez, J. (2014).  Mirror-mark test performance on jackdaws reveals potential methodological problems in the use of stickers in avian-mark test studies.  PLOS ONE 9: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0086193
  5. Epstein, R., Lanza, R.P., and Skinner, B.F. (1981).  “Self-awareness” in the pigeon.  Science 212: 695-696
  6. Punzo, F. (2000). An experimental analysis of maze learning in the wolf spider, Trochosa parthenus (Areaneae: Lycosidae).  Florida Scientist 63: 155-159
  7. Clary, D. and Kelly M.D. (2016).  Graded mirror self recognition by Clark’s nutcrackers.  Scientific Reports 6: doi:10.1038/srep36459
  8. Bugnyar, T., Reber, S.A., and Buckner, C.  (2016) Ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors.  Nature Communications 7.  doi:10.1038/ncomms10506

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I need your help or Corvid Research is toast

About three years into my graduate program the emails, letters and blog comments started. A trickle at first, maybe only one or two things every couple of months. Now, five years into my program, the questions, calls for help, requests for opinions, and desire to share stories of corvid joy, sadness or sheer mystery are relentless.

And I love it. It’s one of my favorite parts of my work. Few graduate students get to engage with the public in the way that I do or will ever experience the public appreciating the research they do or the expertise they’ve acquired through the often tremendous personal sacrifice of being a grad student. Hardly any will ever get an email saying “your research is so cool” or “keep up the good work” or “your work changed my heart and mine about something” or “thank you.” They won’t ever hear those words despite the fact their research may have far more reaching and positive effects on the health and wellness of their non-human and human communities than mine does. But I do get to hear those things because the nature of my research means it makes for a cool blog and gets written about in publications like National Geographic and The Week.  And I am truly grateful for that. But on behalf of all those students who aren’t so well known I want to use my platform to ask something of you now.  Because our existence as graduate students is under attack.

If you’ve been keeping up with current events you’ll know that our GOP leaders are working on a tax reform bill. What many people do not yet know, however, is that the current bill will do away with key features intended to help make higher education affordable. Including:

–Section 117(d), which exempts tuition waivers from being counted as taxable income

–Section 127, which exempts employer education assistance from being taxed

–The Lifetime Learning Tax Credit

–The Student Loan Interest Deduction

–Consolidation of the American Education Opportunity Credit to only be used for 4 + 1 years

I could write whole blog posts on every one of those points but for the sake of brevity let’s focus just on the first one, the tax exemption for tuition waivers.

Most grad students working in STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering and Math) fund their degree with teaching assistantships or research assistantships. In my case, I started with an RA because I had an NSF Fellowship and when that ended after three years, I transitioned to a quarter by quarter struggle to find a TA position. For my TA work, the university pays me at 50%, meaning I receive a salary based on 20 hours of work (despite the fact most TA’s work considerably more.) My annual stipend is $23,000, but it can vary anywhere from $15,000-35,000 depending on your source of funding and state. This money is intended to provide basic cost of living and for many students, especially those with dependents, it barely covers that. But we make due because there’s few other options, we love science, and we know that our work has a meaningful impact on our communities.

This stipend money, regardless of the source, is taxed. As it should be. But in addition to a small stipend these TA and RA positions include tuition waivers which are valued at anywhere from 12-50k a year. This waiver is basically the University paying itself for our tuition and under the current system it’s not considered income. The waiver is designed to offset the considerable costs of pursuing higher education in this country. And, because grad students aren’t just professionals in training, but are currently contributing to our universities (and communities at large) through our labor, research and publications, it seems reasonable that we shouldn’t be paying for work we do in their name.

Losing this tuition waiver would mean students like me would still be getting paid about $23,000 but taxed as if our salary was in the neighborhood of $60,000. In fact some grad students are poised to have the biggest tax hike of any demographic under this new plan. That’s not financially feasible for most people (including myself), especially those who have already accrued debt from their undergraduate education, or who come from low income families, or those supporting dependents. It would be a disaster for STEM. 

Let me be clear: I’m not trying to paint the plight of grad students as the most important casualty of this bill. There are lots of reason to oppose it and we can’t all be fighting the same battle when are are so many different ones underway. But if you are reading this because you know and appreciate my research, popular articles, #CrowOrNo, blog, or even if you just care about STEM…that it continues to exist and attracts people of all financial means, then I need you to call or write to your legislators. They need to know that their non-grad student, tax paying constituents want to keep people like me in school.  If you need any help navigating how to do this please use this resource: Action Alert! – Tax Reform.

I will be here to answer your crow questions from now until well after my run at grad school ends.  But this time I need you to return the favor.  Please contact your legislators.

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