Clever Crows: Noticing More Than You Think

For most of history, humans have thought of ourselves as distinguished from the rest of the animal life on this planet. We have the incredible ability to take in the world around us, understand it, and then proceed to manipulate the world to our own advantage. Some have argued what encapsulates our ability to do this is our inclination to categorize objects around us, solve problems, and sometimes (if we are clever enough) even make discoveries. To achieve these great feats of logic is our fundamental capability to recognize patterns and to think in a way known as analogical reasoning. I am sure this type of thing rings a bell for anyone that has ever taken a standardized test like the SAT and was given a question similar to, ‘Pineapple is to airplane as grape is to ___________’. As it turns out, researchers also assess analogical reasoning in species other than humans. We have found that our close relatives the primates are capable of this, but do any other animals have the ability to also analogically reason? To determine this, some researchers have turned to the crow. Surprised? You won’t be after learning a bit more about these remarkable creatures.

Crows all fall under the genus Corvus and they can be found nearly all over the globe. They are also one of the most extensively studied birds out there and this undoubtedly has something to do with their outstanding ability recognize the differences between friends and foes.   For example, crows are renowned for their ability to recognize and harass predators. This behavior has been exploited by farmers in order to eradicate their crow problem… using a 12 gauge. To do this farmers will place a fake great horned owl outside (or a real caged one, ya know, if you have an owl just sitting around) and then they wait. Upon seeing an owl the crows immediately organize an attack and surround it. This is because crows recognize an owl (one of the crows top predators) and communicate efficiently with one another to attack it. Such a behavior was extensively studied several years ago by researchers in Seattle, Washington.1 They harassed crows while wearing a creepy mask and found that the crows will recognize the mask and attack whoever is wearing it. This behavior even occurred with crows that never were harassed at all by the masked villain, which suggested that they communicated to each other in some way.

 

Crows do not only notice those that are their enemies, but also those that are kind to them. Recently, a story came out from the BBC of an 11-year-old girl that lives in Seattle (apparently, there’s a lot of crows in Seattle) that receives gifts from crows.2 This is because she feeds them every day and eventually the crows started to show her their appreciation by providing her gifts such as buttons, earrings, and numerous other trinkets. All of this demonstrates that crows have an incredible ability to recognize and understand friend vs. foe, but can they bring that one step further and understand an analogy?

 

An analogy is any situation where you understand relationships between two items and can apply it to another set of unrelated items. Edward Wasserman from the University of Iowa, along with many international collaborators, studied if crows could decipher a problem that would indicate that they were capable of rational matching to sample (RMTS).3 This type of experiment test whether or not an individual can extrapolate that choices have similarities or differences with an item they are shown at the beginning of an experiment. In other words, are their options similar in their sameness (A is to A is the same as B is to B) or similar in their differentness (B is to C is just as different as E is to F). They tested this on crows by showing crows a card with shapes of various colors and sizes. They first went through a preparation round where they showed a crow a card and then allowed it to pick between two options, one of which was related to the first card in its degree of sameness or differentness (i.e., an analogy). Confused? An example is the first card is a yellow triangle and a red circle of similar sizes, the correct choice for the crow would be a card with a blue plus sign and green square of similar sizes (see Figure 1). During this preparation round, only the card with correct answer had a reward of mealworms underneath it. However, once they started the testing round, both cards had mealworms under them, thus the crows could not simply smell for the worms and pick the card. This tested if the crows would pick cards purely based on their degree of sameness or differentness (so could they recognize the pattern). They found that the crows would select the correct card a remarkable 75% of the time. This result suggest that crows are capable of analogical reasoning, which is astonishing considering the only other animals we are aware that are capable of this are humans and a few primates.

Famous philosophers such as René Descartes and John Locke once thought humans were the only creatures on this planet capable of abstract thought. However, as we learn more about the other forms of life around us we find that other animals are cleverer than we ever gave them credit for. Crows are capable of recognizing patterns whether it’s an owl is always a jerk, a little girl is a friend worth rewarding, and more abstractly that some objects share in their degrees of similarities or differences. So, the next time you see a crow and think about what you have learned reading this; realize that this crow could be thinking about you too.

Citations:

1 – http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html?_r=1&

2 – http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026

3 – Smirnova, Anna, et al. “Crows Spontaneously Exhibit Analogical Reasoning.” Current Biology 25.2 (2015): 256-260.

Nick Batora is a Ph.D graduate student in the Department of Genetics at the University of Georgia. He also is a plant biologist, enjoys hiking, and once received a gold ribbon in a hip-hop dance competition in Detroit, Michigan. For more information you can contact him at batorani@gmail.com