Crows Are Even Smarter Than We Thought Possible

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We know that crows understand causality, the relationship between cause and effect. We also know they have mad tool skills. Now, a new research collaboration between Moscow State University and the University of Iowa suggests that crows are also capable of analogical thinking, a realm of reasoning thought only available to primates.


Scientific American reports:

A recent research collaboration has discovered that crows exhibit strong behavioral signs of analogical reasoning — the ability to solve puzzles like "bird is to air as fish is to what?" Analogical reasoning is considered to be the pinnacle of cognition and it only develops in humans between the ages of three and four.

[The researchers] first trained hooded crows on several tasks in which they had to match items that were the same as one another. The crows were presented with a tray containing three cups. The middle cup was covered by a card picturing a color, a shape, or a number of items. The other two side cups were also covered by cards — one the same as and one different from the middle card. The cup under the matching card contained food, but the cup under the nonmatching card was empty. Crows quickly learned to choose the matching card and to do so more quickly from one task to the next.

Then, the critical test was given. Each card now pictured a pair of items. The middle card would display pairs AA or CD, and the two side cards would display pair BB and pair EF. The relation between one pair of items must be appreciated and then applied to a new pair of items to generate the correct answer: the BB card in the case of AA or the EF card in the case of CD. For instance, if the middle card displayed a circle and a cross, then the correct choice would be the side card containing a square and a triangle rather than the side card containing two squares.

Not only could the crows correctly perform this task, but they did so spontaneously, from the very first presentations, without ever being trained to do so.

The "critical" second test, showing the crow selecting the correct cards (and gobbling the mealworm reward beneath), can be seen in the video below, and you can read more background about the experiment, including how the crows were trained, at the University of Iowa's website.

Read the full scientific paper, "Crows Spontaneously Exhibit Analogical Reasoning," here.

[Via the BBC]

Image by Flickr user grendelkhan.



Cliff Hesby

I've always liked crows and the whole Corvidae family. Lots of people seem to hate them which I've always thought was due to them being the most human of birds. I once walked through a park at night that had become their roosting spot - they scatter far and wide during the day but at night they gather in the hundreds in one spot for a communal nights sleep - as I walked past trees a black cloud of them would fly up then settle down again like a wave of fluttering wings following my path.