15 Jan 2005 @ 03:20, by Raymond Powers

By James Owen in London
National Geographic News December 9, 2004


Anyone who has watched crows, jays, ravens and other members of the corvid family will know they're anything but "birdbrained."

For instance, jays will sit on ant nests, allowing the angry insects to douse them with formic acid, a natural pesticide which helps rid the birds of parasites. Urban-living carrion crows have learned to use road traffic for cracking tough nuts. They do this at traffic light crossings, waiting patiently with human pedestrians for a red light before retrieving their prize.

Yet corvids may be even cleverer than we think. A new study suggests their cognitive abilities are a match for primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Furthermore, crows may provide clues to understanding human intelligence.

Published tomorrow in the journal Science, the study is co-authored by Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton, from the departments of animal behavior and experimental psychology at Cambridge University, England.

They say that, while having very different brain structures, both crows and primates use a combination of mental tools, including imagination and the anticipation of possible future events, to solve similar problems. They base their argument on existing studies.

Emery and Clayton write, "These studies have found that some corvids are not only superior in intelligence to birds of other avian species (perhaps with the exception of some parrots), but also rival many nonhuman primates."

Increasingly, scientists agree that it isn't physical need that makes animal smart, but social necessity. Group living tends to be a complicated business, so for individuals to prosper they need to understand exactly what's going on. So highly social creatures like dolphins, chimps, and humans tend to be large-brained and intelligent.

Large Brains

The study notes that crows are also social and have unusually large brains for their size. "It is relatively the same size as the chimpanzee brain," the authors said.

They say that crows and apes both think about their social and physical surroundings in complex ways, using tool use as an example.

Like apes, many birds employ tools to gather food, but it isn't clear whether chimps or crows appreciate how these tools work. It may be that they simply discover their usefulness by accident. However, studies of New Caledonian crows, from the South Pacific, suggest otherwise.

New Caledonian crows manufacture two very different types of tool for finding prey. Hooks crafted from twigs are used to poke grubs from holes in trees, while they also cut up stiff leaves with their beaks, carefully sculpting them into sharp instruments for probing leaf detritus for insects and other invertebrates.

A New Caledonian crow in captivity learned how to bend a piece of straight wire into a hook to probe for food. (Watch a video of the crow doing this: )

Such sophisticated tool manufacture and use is unique in non-human wild animals, according to Jackie Chappell, a UK-based zoologist who has studied the birds.

Emery and Clayton compare the crow's handiwork to minor human technological innovations. And because different New Caledonian crow populations make these tools to slightly different designs, some scientists take this as evidence of some form of culture, as has been suggested in chimpanzees.

Other corvids may use memories of past experiences to plan ahead.

In the case of Western scrub jays, a previous study by Emery and Clayton suggests jays with past experience of pilfering food caches collected by other jays can then use this knowledge to protect their own caches.

Lab experiments showed that if a habitual thief was observed while burying its own cache, it would later go back and move it when no other bird was looking. Meanwhile, "innocent" jays did not exhibit the same cunning.


The researchers also argue that such behavior suggests Western scrub jays are able to second guess another's intentions, or, to put it another way, get into another bird's mind. In which case, this could be evidence for imagination.

Emery and Clayton write, "Western scrub jays may present a case for imagination because the jays needed to have remembered the previous relevant social context, used their own experience of having been a thief to predict the behavior of a pilferer, and determined the safest course of action to protect the caches from pilferage."

Studies to assess similar cognitive abilities in apes have been inconclusive, according to John Pearce, professor of psychology at Cardiff University in Wales.

"[The Western scrub jay study] is some of the best evidence going that one animal can understand what another is thinking," he added.

Pearce believes we can gain insights into the basic mechanisms of human intelligence through the study of animals. He says language is generally considered to be one of the major divisions between human and animal intelligence, which makes Western scrub jays especially noteworthy.

He said, "What's so interesting is that while Western scrub jays may not have language, the research shows they've got many of the intellectual abilities that humans have. This suggests that many of our intellectual abilities which we think we need language for perhaps we don't in fact need language for. That then makes us try to understand these abilities in a different way."

If we're as smart as we think we are, perhaps we need to keep an even closer eye on those clever old crows.

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1 comment

16 Jan 2005 @ 03:43 by astrid : The Average Human
in our Western Culture (Europe/USA)with average schooling: Highschool Plus, uses appr. 500 words to live their lives!( add to this maybe a hundred Techno-specialty words to handle computer info and such) Our Average most Loved Pet, the DOG learns to understand appr 7 to 800 HUMAN words!.... while their dense DUM owners usually don't learn even ten (10) DOGGIE Words!.... On top of this all animals use as a normal every-day tool their telepathic abilities. Now we humans are getting REALLY BEHIND here as far as being so sophisitcated and evolved, plus other chest-thumping things! Our NEED to oppress and denyi another Being's greatness is of course proportional to our own insecurity and doubts about our own abilities. (They are all there, but we are programmed, trained and Mind-controlled NOT TO TRUST these abilites/ skills, hence we don't. Thus we DON'T USE them!... as the idiots as we are/have allowed ourselves to be/come!... ) All my fourlegged Kids know much more about me than I about them!... THAT much I DO know!!!!

Dr Konrad Lorenz ( from Austria, who is considered to be the Father of Etology; Animal Behaviour Study ) was a firm believer, or actually he "knew" that animals "cannot develope warm loving FRIEND relationships with eachother. THAT skill, he saw as granted only Humans!... Geeeeezzz, On what Planet did he do his research, I always wondered! (you can read about these stupendous, errouneous idiocies in his famous Work: "Aggression" ( I don't remember the sub title) if you can find it. It was considered the most groundbreaking study of animals in the early Seventies ( maybe even late Sixties.
Acc. to Dr Lorenz, animals learned to tolerate eachother, but that's all. He did tell in his book how he and his family (somewhere in the country side outside of Vienna ) introduced every new family member whether horse, crow, snake, dog, cat etc -he and his children collecte all kinds of animals and dragged them home! I give him a lot of credit for that!- to the already exisiting Members IN HIS LIVING ROOM!... telling the new Member that we are all one family and accept each other and asked the older members to accept the new-comer!!!...( I have used this very methid ever since my self -with great success, I might add) Now, HOW DID HE NOT SEE this great thing he was doing, eventhough it was 'just done as a fun/ny family spoof of sorts'!... I never understood his density in this one either!...

Anyway, we humans can -if we absolutley have to take home any first prize-take this one Home: WE ARE THE DENSEST,DUMMEST and LEAST IN TOUCH with UNIVERSE of ALL Creatures on Earth!
Thanks RayPows for you interesting article!  

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