Corvids consist of crows, ravens, jays, magpies and treepies. They are considered among the most intelligent of birds (the parrot family is also pretty bright). New Caledonian crows are said to be among the most intelligent, with several being studied (by a real live princess! Auguste Marie Philippa, Prinzessin von Bayern!) in Austria. Yeah, that’s Austria, which is about half the world away from New Caledonia, a collectivity of France in the southwest Pacific ocean. They test crows for intelligence there, too, but I’m more familiar with the studies in Haidl, Austria.
The construction of novel compound tools through assemblage of otherwise non-functional elements involves anticipation of the affordances of the tools to be built. Except for few observations in captive great apes, compound tool construction is unknown outside humans, and tool innovation appears late in human ontogeny. We report that habitually tool-using New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) can combine objects to construct novel compound tools. We presented 8 naïve crows with combinable elements too short to retrieve food targets. Four crows spontaneously combined elements to make functional tools, and did so conditionally on the position of food. One of them made 3- and 4-piece tools when required.
Here’s more research, showing that crows are not just good at tool use, but that successful tool use improves their mood! Yeah, how do you tell if a bird is in a good mood? The scientists have a way for determining that, using a glass half-full (optimism, good mood) versus glass half-empty (pessimism, bad mood) approach, where the half-full glass is replaced by an ambiguously situated box.
Do crows also make art? Some people think so:
Stuart Dahlquist is in Seattle, so I assume the crows are as well, despite the German writing on the ashtray.
What are they thinking about?
Watching a crow eagerly eye me for a peanut, I can’t help but wonder what it’s thinking about. Is it thinking the same thing as its flock mate, or is it having its own experience? Is it aware of me? Of itself? The conscious experience is such a fundamental part of humanity, it’s nearly impossible for most of us to envision life without it. And by extension, its hard for us to imagine that animals don’t experience consciousness too. But the fact remains that scientifically investigating consciousness, especially in non-human animals, has been slow and contentious. Among birds, this research has been all the more elusive. Which is why a study looking at subjective consciousness in carrion crows by Nieder et al. (2020)1 made an enormous splash this past fall, and resulted in a lot of misleading headlines. So why has consciousness been so difficult to study and how did this team attempt to do it?
What they found is that like primates, crows exhibit a two-stage process, where neuronal activity during Stage I mostly reflects the intensity of the physical stimulus, followed by a second spike in activity that reflected their perception. The patterns of activity in Stage II were so consistent, that the researchers could predict whether the crows would say they saw the light or not by looking at this activity alone. Most importantly, while the responses of the two birds were the same if the light intensity was bright and unambiguous, when shown faint lights, the two birds responded differently. Meaning that despite being shown the exact same stimulus, the two birds had different subjective experiences of whether they had seen it or not. There were also instances of false positives, where the birds indicated that they had seen a light that wasn’t really there. In these cases their brains behaved during Stage II just as they did when they had actually seen a bright light. This is important because it further demonstrates that the brain activity the researchers were measuring correlated with the crows’ subjective experience, rather than as a result of the intensity of the stimulus itself.Corvid research blog
And crows like to have fun!
And there’s a great example of training crows to pick up trash at a theme park in France. Of course they have less work these days because of the pandemic.
This is just a small sample of the examples of crow and corvid intelligence, and the reason I was inspired to start the Crow Nickels. More examples later!
“Which is first, bird or egg?” Sol asked. … But the creature, after crunching up and swallowing down its snack, answered Sol’s question. There is no first; there is no last; life is a circle; it has always been a circle. Egg to bird to egg to bird. And around again. Hunters of the Feather