Category Archives: Raven intelligence

What is “intelligence”?

Every once in a while, including on this very site, a popular science article will come out about a new study demonstrating the intellectual capabilities of corvids, or just generally espousing their intelligence. While articles communicating this certainly aren’t wrong, I do feel they most often leave out the essential detail to understanding these headlines: what animal scientists mean when they say “intelligence.”

In the day to day way we use the word, intelligence can be a very loaded concept. When using it to describe humans, for example, it’s often biased towards favoring skills exhibited by the neurotypical people that have historically defined it.  Given this complexity in the human realm, applying it to animals seems all the more prone to inappropriate biases, inviting criticism that how we evaluate intelligence is nothing more than identifying animals that operate most like us. While it’s true that our scientific understanding of intelligence is rooted in our human lens, it’s not the case that the word has some esoteric meaning based on how much we feel an animal is like ourselves.

Nor is the case that intelligence is simply a reflection of an animal’s success in its environment. This idea is best captured and perpetuated by the following quote, which was not said by Einstein but is most often attributed to him:

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

I find this idea most irksome because it equates “intelligence” with success, implying (seemingly unintentionally) a value system where intelligence is not only an evolutionary goal, but the final stop in a hierarchical, evolutionary ladder. This could not be further from the way evolution works, not to mention the host of problems associated with trying to put non-human animals on some kind of value scale based on how much they happen to be cognitively like us. Chinook salmon are really good at finding smaller fish to eat, transitioning from saltwater to freshwater, and fighting their way upstream to breed in their natal streams. That doesn’t make them “geniuses” but it does make them successful, and in the eyes of nature that’s all that matters.

So what is intelligence? You might see it defined in slightly different ways, but as defined in my field, intelligence is the ability to flexibly solve problems using cognition rather than instinct or trial and error learning. That definition allows us to parse behaviors that may on their surface seem complex, smart, etc., but are in fact the result of simple mechanisms that have been selected for over generations, and cannot be applied by the animal to situations they did not evolve to address.

For example, a pigeon’s ability to discriminate specs of edible food on a sidewalk, a squirrel stashing food for a harsh winter, or a bee dancing to communicate the locations of flowers may all seem like intelligent behaviors, but under our working definition they are not. That’s because when we look closer we see that these animals execute these skills instinctively, and cannot apply them outside of the contexts for which they were specifically evolved to operate. Corvids, primates, elephants, etc, all have examples of skills that they possess because it’s relevant to their natural history, but that they can also apply to completely novel circumstances.

So when scientists describe certain animals as intelligent, know that that’s shorthand for the fact they exhibit a type of general cognitive skill. Most often, we determine that an animal demonstrates intelligence by looking for the presence of behaviors/abilities that hallmark this kind of cognitive, flexible thinking.  Things like causal reasoning, imagination, insight, mental time travel, etc. This is how something like an experiment showing New Caledonian crows can infer the properties of objects based on how they behave when suspended in front of a fan, lends evidence to New Caledonian crows’ intelligence.

Since certain animals possess more of these tools than others, or display some of them with greater aplomb, it can be tempting to try and rank animals under the umbrella of intelligence (i.e. are crows smarter than ravens?). But this is where, in my opinion, the inquiry into their intelligence stops being useful.  It’s interesting to know how different animals solve problems, but it quickly becomes boring, even dangerous, when the goal is handing out blue ribbons.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

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Best books for corvid lovers

This post was prompted by someone on my twitter feed who asked that I put together a reading list for people who want to learn more about corvids; a totally kick-ass idea if I say so myself.  The following are all the books I have read and can speak personally to, however, I’m sure there are others and I encourage folks to add them in the comments section.  As a preface, I’ll remind readers that John Marzluff is my graduate adviser, nevertheless, I assure you that I genuinely believe he is a fantastic writer and my review of his books are not inflated in the hopes of getting approval on my dissertation. 🙂  So without much further adieu, here’s a list of all the corvid books I’ve read with a brief synopsis of the material and my recommendation.

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In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
If watching, feeding or rehabilitating corvids is something you do in your free time, consider this your crow bible.  Curious how long crows live?  What they do as juveniles?  The sounds they make?  The ways the interact with people?  It’s all in there.  This book remains my go-to guide for general crow knowledge.  Yet, despite the fact its backbone is rigorous science, it’s written in a way that feels very easy to digest.  John and Tony wrote it with the intent that it would be for a wide audience and I think they achieved that beautifully.  After reading this book, I have no doubt you’ll have a deeper understanding for these birds, not to mention a new admiration for Tony’s artwork.  I even used one of his drawings for the book on the invitations for my wedding (with permission, of course).

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Dog Days Raven Nights by John and Colleen Marzluff
This is the book I most often recommend to my own friends and family.  Not because it offers superior or more easily read  information on corvids, but because this book gives you the best insight into what it really means to do fieldwork.  Nearly the entirety of the book focuses on the period of time after John and Colleen had finished their graduate work in Arizona, and were conducting a post-doctoral study on ravens with Bernd Heinrich in remote Maine.  It’s organized as a back and forth between John and Colleen, which means you get two perspectives on the raven work and Colleen’s development as a dog sledder and trainer.  As a reader, you experience what it means to completely dedicate every moment, piece of sanity, and dime you have on conducting a field experiment and you walk away with a much deeper appreciation for how difficult it is to answer questions of animal behavior.  If the human dimension of science isn’t your interest, however, fear not.  The book is still loaded with fascinating information on ravens including, in my opinion, one of John’s most important contributions which is information sharing among ravens.  An excellent read for sure.

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Gifts of the Crow by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
For those looking for a more scientifically dense reading on crow behavior and neurology this is the book for you.  It doesn’t make for the lighthearted Sunday reading that ITCOCR does, but it still satisfies the trademark Marzluff style of mixing rigorous science with the anecdotal stories of crow behavior that makes us love them.  If you’ve been fascinated by the story of Gabi Mann, the little girl who feeds and gets gifts from crows, then this is the scientific background you need to see the whole picture.

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Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich
Long before John Marzluff started writing books, his post-doc adviser, Bernd Heinrich, was already an expert at the game.  Heinrich has a reputation for being one of the most eloquent and engrossing natural history writers and it’s a reputation that’s been well earned.  Mind of the Raven is actually what initially peaked my interest in corvids, so in many ways I have this book to thank for the work I am doing now.  For anyone who lives with ravens, or simply has a fascination for them, I can’t recommend it enough.  Bernd’s writing will nurture your passion and give you the science to back up what you already know: ravens are badass, awesome animals.

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Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Crow Planet it a book best characterized by Haupt’s journey to find curiosity and loveliness in an increasingly urban landscape where the natural world can feel further and further away.  Crows therefore, offered the perfect vehicle for looking at and appreciating what remains when the forests retreat and box stores and neighborhoods take their place.   By the author’s own admission her journey through writing Crow Planet made Haupt appreciate, “but not quite love”, crows.   Despite this, she manages to write about them with grace, and her stories will make even the biggest skeptic take another look at these animals.  Although Haupt’s background is not in science, she doesn’t omit the scientific facts, though she does take more artistic liberty when describing their antics than John or Heinrich do.  All that being said, this is an excellent book for the urban naturalist or crow watcher.

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Crow by Boria Sax
If you’re interested in crow mythology this is the book for you.  Sax takes you through time and space to explore the role of corvids in human myth, religion and art.    His thoroughness is without compare, but if anthropology is not your interest this book will prove taxing.  It’s one I happily keep on hand, but not one that I’ve ever had the patience to read all the way through.  Nevertheless, I probably should, since it’s chalk full of information and historical context that I would be better off knowing.

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Bird Brain: An exploration of avian intelligence by Nathan Emery
Although not exclusively dedicated to corvids, Bird Brain, written by corvid cognition expert Dr. Nathan Emery, offers an incredible look at the minds of your favorite birds.  Although his book tackles some of the more difficult concepts of avian cognition, it feels and reads more like a coffee table book, complete with beautiful artwork, some of which was done by Emery himself.  Each chapter is themed around a particular aspect of cognition (communication, spatial memory, etc.) and walks the reader through the fundamental biological principals and samples the most interesting studies that have been done on the topic.  The book is rich with the kinds of analogies and descriptions that break through the barriers of dry scientific writing.  Perfect for the budding young scientist or the long time corvid fan.

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The wake of crows: Living and dying in shared worlds by Thom van Dooren
“Crows are among our most familiar and charismatic animals and as such there is a body of literature dedicated to them for which few other wildlife species compare. While each contributor takes a distinct perspective and harnesses different stories or features of their biology, there is perhaps nothing as unique in the body of work dedicated to crows as this book. It is neither a classic natural history book, nor a memoir of being connected to the natural world through crows. Instead, van Dooren has used crows as a loom on which to weave science and humanities together, producing a thesis of what it means to exist in our contemporary world. Central to this thesis is the question of “What else is possible?” For the traditional science and natural history reader his exploration of this seemingly familiar question will be anything but familiar. While by now, for example, we may be used to being asked to reconsider the crow as pest or bad omen, here we are asked to reconsider them systemically, and in ways that ultimately inform the reader’s ethic….It’s a unique and powerful look at what it means to live in a shared world, and asks that we reconsider our ethics in doing so. It is far from a light read, but it is one that grants the experience of expansion that curious people crave.” 

This section is apart of a larger review I wrote of The wake of crows for a contribution has been accepted for publication and will appear in a revised form (subject to input from the journal’s editor) in a book review for Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

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I’m sure there are many others I haven’t read which subsequently didn’t make this list.  Feel free to make recommendations in the comments section!

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The politics of ravens

With the (insert relevant election cycle) coming up, a 2014 publication from Massen et al. reminds us that we are not alone in our affection/affliction for political scheming. No, ravens don’t hold elections or engage in thinly veiled attempts at voter suppression, but they do build relationships and attempt to thwart the alliances of others.   Massen’s team observed the interactions of hundreds of individually marked birds and categorized their relationships as either (1) breeding pair with territory, (2) strongly bonded w/o territory, (3) loosely bonded w/o territory or (4) nonbonded.   Ravens build bonds by participating in affiliative behavior such as allopreening (mutual grooming), and interrupting these interactions can be risky if the pair fight back. Over six months they recorded affiliative interactions and found that 18.8% were

Photo credit: Jorg Massen

Photo credit: Jorg Massen

interrupted by a third bird, giving rise to their curiosity over the function of these interventions.  Given that ravens have been previously shown to track the dominance relationships of others, they wanted to know if there was a relationship between bonding status and the likelihood of being an intervener or being intervened.  In both cases they found that there was a significant relationship between the two.  Birds who were either a pair or at least strongly bonded were most likely to intervene, and those attempting to forge loose bonds were the most likely to be interrupted.  The researchers interpreted these results to show that strongly allied birds attempt to preclude the threat of competition by squashing the alliances of future coalitions.  Importantly, they were less likely to bother with nonbonded birds since, for now, their social ties are too weak to become threatening.  Conversely, they also stayed out of the interactions of other pair or strongly bonded birds since these interventions pose a greater physical risk to the third wheel.

These results are quite intriguing but there’s still a lot to vet and better understand before they will be widely accepted.  Critically, there is no immediate benefit to the intervener.   Embracing the results of this study requires accepting the idea that an animal, especially a bird, is capable of putting future rewards ahead of current risk or losses.  Loose bonds are too weak to act as a competitive threat, so this effort on behalf of the intervener is only useful if you assume that those loose bonds will become a threat if allowed to flourish and become stronger over the course of days, weeks or months. Risking a fight now to thwart a relationship that only may be problematic next month is a big temporal leap.  As humans, this kind of future planning is an ability we take for granted but it’s quite a cognitive feat.  Although the scales are beginning to shift, I imagine we have many more studies to go before results like this are considered representative of the temporal flexibility of ravens and other corvids.

  1. Jorg J.M. Massen, Georgine Szipl, Michela Spreafico, Thomas Bugnyar. Ravens Intervene in Others’ Bonding Attempts. Current Biology, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.073

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