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The humble crow is far smarter than we thought

Smart birds: Experiments with crows and ravens have shown how they can remember and recall.

Smart birds: Experiments with crows and ravens have shown how they can remember and recall.  

Though it may not be a Srinivasa Ramanujan, the crow knows some arithmetic, is creative and can make tools just as a chimpanzee can

The more we study the common crow, or its big-size relative, the raven, the smarter we find them to be. Readers may recall an earlier column of about 13 years ago, where we found that the crow knows some arithmetic and can count at least up to five.

Well, the crow may not be a Srinivasa Ramanujan, but more studies over the years have found that it possesses some knowledge, is smart, creative and can make tools just as a chimpanzee can.


Rather than repeat what was written 13 years ago, let me refer the reader to access Youtube and watch. It shows how the crow is able to bend a wire into a hockey stick shape and lift out the cup with the food therein. Indeed, there are several such examples accessible on Youtube, describing the smartness, and tool-making ability of the common crow.

Further experiments with crows and ravens have shown how they can remember and recall. This ability allows them to plan for the future. Indeed, Drs. Marcus Boekle and Nicola Clayton of the department of psychology at Cambridge University, U.K., think that remembering thoughts and planning for the future is not just a human ability, and that some species can plan for the future just as well as a 4-year-old human child can. They talk about this in their analysis (Science, July 14, 2017 issue, pp. 126-127), of the research work of Drs. Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath of Lund University, Sweden, published in the same issue of the journal (in pp.206-208). The latter chose to work with five ravens and gave them a variety of tasks. Remarkably, they found that ravens are actually similar to the great apes (e.g., chimpanzees) in planning, flexibility, tool-making for a purpose, remembering and planning for future, and trading!

They specifically tested whether crows and ravens have skills in only those areas or domains restricted to food gathering and storing, or whether they show talents beyond these. Also, whether they make decisions only for the immediate moment, or can plan for as far as the next day (about 17 hours). The latter demands self- control and planning. The journal Science, where their paper appears, has made some of these talents of the birds accessible to readers at. This video shows how a raven can associate a token of a given shape and size to be indicative of a piece of food, remembers it and drops it in a box to retrieve the mouthful. This is an aspect of symbolic thinking. One wonders whether this is a predator of the tokens we humans use to withdraw cash in a bank, or to enter a subway or Metrorail platform!

That the bird can ‘delay its gratification’ is illustrated in the Youtube video. This demands self control, a property that they display with panache.Experiments of this kind have suggested that corvids (a family that includes crows, ravens, magpies, jays, rooks and similar birds) are intelligent, tool makers, remember and recall, plan for the future using self-control, trade and exchange and even cheat and bully. In all these, they are remarkably similar to the great apes. Kabadayi and Osvath conclude their paper stating: “ravens are avian dinosaurs that shared an ancestor with mammals around 320 million years ago… The conspicuous similarity in performance opens up avenues for instigation into the evolutionary principles of cognition”. Thus, to call someone ‘birdbrained’ is no longer an insult!


True, a crow does not sing the way another dark bird, the songbird cuckoo, does. An impish Sanskrit poet once remarked: kakah krishna pikah krishna, ko bedhah pikakakayoho, vasantha smaye prapte kakah kkaha pikah pikaha. (How do you tell apart the black crow from the black cuckoobird? Wait till springtime comes, and you know who is who). As a riposte, one may remark: yantra tantra karyeshu, kakah kakaha pikah pikaha. (When it comes to tool making and other practices, you know who is who).


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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 4:53:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/the-humble-crow-is-far-smarter-than-we-thought/article19524598.ece

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