Tag Archives: Crow intelligence

Why the crow smiles

There’s hardly a corvid species that doesn’t strike me as beautiful but there’s only one that’s always struck me as particularly gleeful.  Looking at the New Caledonian crow it’s evident there’s something different about the shape and proportions of its bill. It’s a bit shorter and more blunt, and it lacks the obvious downward curve of a typical crow bill, with lower mandible actually curving slightly up. Put together, these features appear to give it the perpetual grin that trademarks this species.  I’ve joked that this must be because they’re always feeling very pleased with themselves for being so smart, and thanks to new research, I’ve come to learn my joke had it backwards.

By using tomography scans, Hiroshi Matsui and his team were able to compare the shape and structure of the NC crow’s bill with that of its close relatives. Their conclusion, which they report in the March issue of Scientific Reports, is that this shape makes the handling and manufacturing of tools easier. Looking at photos of the birds in action, it feels intuitive that the more exaggerated curve of a raven or American crow bill would have a hard time achieving the dexterity that NC crows need to use their stick and hook tools.

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Given this new research it’s time to amend my joke. It’s not that NC crows grin because they’re smart, they’re smart because they grin.

Literature cited

  1.  Matsui, H., Hunt, G., Oberhofer, K., Ogihara, N., McGowen, K., Mithraratne, K., Yamasaki, T., Grey, R., and Izawa, E. 2016.  Adaptive bill morphology for enhanced tool manipulation in New Caledonian crows.  Scientific Reports 6. doi:10.1038/srep22776

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Filed under Crow behavior, crow intelligence, Crow life history, New Research

Counting abilities of crows

Breaking news: Crows probably have sense of numerical competency (a.k.a. they can count)!  Ok, so this isn’t breaking news, and it’s not exactly true, but it makes for a nice headline as evidenced by the number of articles that have shown up in my inbox this week regarding a new study.  As early as 1950, Otto Koehler, a German animal behaviorist, showed that captive Western jackdaws would only turn over enough boxes to obtain the corresponding number of treats they saw him hide (up to around six).  Parrots too, have  shown that they can solve problems requiring the ability to count to around six1.  So what makes this new study so special?  It’s not so much that researchers showed that crows can discriminate quantities but how.

By presenting trained carrion crows with computer screens that showed two quantities of either matched, or mismatched dots, researchers were able to demonstrate that the birds could correctly indicate if the quantities were the same or different, despite the dots being of different sizes and arrangements2.  While that’s in and of itself cool and of value, the main finding what that it’s actually individual neurons that are recognizing and responding to these different quantities.

Photo: Andreas Neider

Photo: Andreas Neider

Why is that so cool?  Because that’s basically how our own brains begin to understand numbers too, despite our brains being, in some ways, really different.  Take that in for a minute: Our human brain, and a crow (a bird!), process numbers in a very similar way.  For a scientist,  the neon sign illuminating “convergent evolution” immediately lights up.  The researchers did not show, however, that that they could count in a strict sense like us, meaning the neurons were responding to numbers relative to each other and not to stand alone values. So perhaps jackdaws or carrion crows are different in this respect, or Koehler’s experiments were testing a different kind of problem solving ability that better teased this out.  Still, crows prove once again what magnificent animals they are and their relevance in understanding our own evolution as humans.

1) Pepperberg, I.M. (1999) The Alex studies: Cognitive and communicative abilities of Grey Parrots.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2) Helen M. D. & Andreas N. (2015) Neurons selective to the number of visual items in the corvid songbird endbrain. PNAS  DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1504245112

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Filed under crow intelligence, Crows and humans, New Research

A scientist’s thoughts on The Crow Box

The first time I watched the writer and hacker Josua Klein’s crow vending machine TED talk as a college undergrad, I was floored.  It was my first exposure to Betty, to the tool making capabilities of some crow species, and to the idea you could potentially train wild crows.  The purported success of the vending machine filled me with ideas.  I used clips from the talk for a variety of public outreach presentations and they were always met with the same kind of GTFO amazement that I love watching people experience as they learn about crows.

Betty just doing her normal New Caledonian crow thing of making hooks out of wire to pull up buckets of food.  No big deal.  :)

Betty just doing her normal New Caledonian crow thing of making hooks out of wire to pull up buckets of food. No big deal. 🙂

As I moved on to graduate school, however, and was fully immersed in the scientific community of crow nerds, I started to hear rumblings that gave me pause.  Rumblings that suggested the vending machine wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be and, in fact, had not worked as it was implied in that TED talk.  Since I’ve never worked personally with Klein, I’ll let my fellow crow scientists speak for themselves on the issue.  You can find one of the graduate students he worked with relating her experience during a reddit AMA here, and as well as the correction that the New York Times Magazine was forced to run after publishing an article on Klein’s effort with the vending machine.  If you don’t want to read them, suffice it to say the main point is that Klein gave people the impression that it had been tested (successfully even) on zoo and wild crows when it hadn’t.

The Crow Box

The Crow Box

Leading the public to believe that we’ve arrived at conclusions when we haven’t is the stuff of stress dreams for scientists, and it’s why the peer review process is the foundation of good scientific practice.  By taking “results” that were only in the early stages of being tested and bringing them to the attention of the public without permission or support from the scientists he was working with, Klein burned his bridge to the folks who had offered to help him test the idea, and any other crow scientist he might approach next.  Which brings me to the recent article I read titled “This Machine Teaches Wild Crows to Bring You Coins for Peanuts.”  

No, it doesn’t.  It might, but probably not.  No one has been able to train wild crows to bring specific items in exchange for food, the website selling the machine even points this outGabi Mann did not intentionally train her crows to bring her things.  They did this of their own volition which is why her collection is as diverse, unique, and beautiful as it is.

Gabbi showing me a sampling of her favorite gifts from the crows

Gabbi showing me a sampling of her favorite gifts from the crows

The suggestion that this machine could train crows to bring you quarters holds about as much water for me as saying you could use a dog whistle to train wild wolves to roll over on command.  The reason that the machine worked on captive birds in the Brooklyn apartment where it was originally tested is that, in captivity, you have a certain amount of leverage over an animal.  You can motivate it with food or treats or affection.  The chances that a wild crow would go to the effort of looking for coins when it could simply skip that step and look for other food seems insurmountable.

All that being said should you turn your nose up at The Crow Box if the idea intrigues you? No, go for it! Maybe yours will be the mind to figure out how to motive wild birds to participate. Or, perhaps you don’t care if it works or not, you’re just in it for a new experience or the joy of trying.  Trying and failing is part of discovery and I see no reason people should wash their hands of it if it sounds like fun.  Plus, even if it doesn’t work, you may end up learning different, but just as amazing things about these birds.  Just don’t hold it against the crows if they decide it’s simply not worth the trouble and leave it to you to go collect the quarters you lost buying The Crow Box.

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Filed under Being a scientist, Crow behavior, crow intelligence, Crows and humans

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.

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Filed under Crow behavior, crow intelligence, Crow life history