29 April 2007

Call me a birdbrain nevermore

The birds of the family corvidae appear to be a clever bunch - The New Caledonian crow, for example, can fashion very primitive tools and to use them to extract grubs from crevices in trees. So perhaps it is no surprise that Scientists have revealed that the Raven is a bird of surprising intelligence (okay so no Raven is going to be designing a nuclear reactor anytime soon but even so...)

Writing in the Scientific American Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar describe a series of experiments that demonstrate the bird’s intelligence. In one experiment ravens were allowed to sit on perches from which pieces of meat dangled from string. But to get the treat, the raven had to perform a complex series of actions: pull up some of the string, place a loop on the perch and hold it with a claw, then pull up another section of string and hold that loop on the perch. By repeating this process half a dozen times, a raven could reach the end of the string and get the meat.

'Some animals can be taught how to get food this way,' Heinrich said. 'However, I found ravens could perform this complex sequence of actions straight away. These birds have never seen string before or encountered meat hanging this way, yet they worked out exactly what they needed to do to get a treat.'

Many animals, birds and insects are capable of carrying out complex actions: nest-building, for example. However, such creatures are programmed genetically to undertake the different steps involved in such behaviour. Little intelligence is involved. By contrast, ravens have demonstrated that they can work out complex sets of actions, involving no tests or trial and error. This implies that they use logic. 'The birds acted as if they knew what they were doing,' the two researchers say in Scientific American. 'Ravens have the ability to test actions in their minds. That capacity is probably lacking, or present only to a limited extent, in most animals.'

Other experiments show that Ravens will let other animals do work for them. In the wild, they have been known to make calls that bring wolves and foxes to dead animals so that these large carnivores can break the carcass apart, making meat accessible to the birds. Scientists believe that ravens evolved their intelligence because of their complex social lives and scavenging lifestyles.

10 comments:

Elizabeth-W said...

nevermore LOL
Ever since I saw the movie The Birds I knew they were smart and very freaky/dangerous.....

Pete's Blog said...

Ravens are big, ugly birds but at least they don't swoop and hit you like Magpies do in September here in Australia.

jams o donnell said...

Hitchcock and Du Maurier ahve a lot to answer for, Elizabeth!

I love Corvids.. I know ravens aren't the prettiest of the family, Pete, but there is something about them

Steve Bates said...

"(okay so no Raven is going to be designing a nuclear reactor anytime soon but even so...)" - jams

Now THAT shows "surprising intelligence"! :)

beakerkin said...

All we see up here in winter are Crows some of them are almost Chicken size. I will have to ask the locals if they go with white wine.

Steve Bates said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention my own bit of doggerel about a mythical Blogger who inspired me on 1/1/2006 not to quit blogging. That dog is called The Ravin'. Enjoy, if that's the right word.

elasticwaistbandlady said...

We get an oily feathered version of the crow here called the 'Mexican Grackle.' They're loud and squawky and fiercely protective of their nests. The problem is that they build their nests in the trees outside public buildings, shopping centers, parking lots. Then they swoop down and attack passer-bys.

So Ravens aren't your average, ordinary 'bird brains', huh?

jams o donnell said...

They have also avoided inventing concentration camps, nerve gas and Little Jimmy Osmond.. They are our speriors by a long mark Steve! Hey you've ben blogging over 4 years now? that is great going. 4 More Years I say!

White wine Bekerkin? Do you know anything about wine? Everyone knows that you drink Beaujolais with corvids!

Ah so they are a bit of a pain then Ewbl? I bet they nest there because there's rich pickings from what we discard

Steve Bates said...

Re: what EWBL said, grackles are astonishingly productive birds. When I was in college in Houston in the late Sixties, we typically carried umbrellas even on dry evenings in grackle season.

Worse, for the grackles and for us, in any given season they were liable to contract some fast-spreading epidemic and die en masse, making the campus smell even worse than it did.

I have some admiration for the grackles that survived contact with smug, overstuffed university students and professors, and lived to afflict us another year. But I can't say I miss the trips to the cleaners.

jams o donnell said...

Yikes it can't have been too much fun then with them either crapping on you or dying on you!Shame they are very attractive birds.