New Castle News

March 31, 2014

Mitchel Olszak: Doubting the basic intelligence of ravens nevermore

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Every now and then, I find myself watching the ravens around my house.

That’s because their behavior is fascinating, and at times more than a little disturbing.

Most birds flit or hop around in a more or less haphazard manner. You get the idea their actions have more to do with instinct than anything approaching a thought process.

No so ravens and their cousins, the crows. These birds are methodical in what they do. And they obviously work in teams as they scavenge for food. They resemble military units on patrol as they wander through yards, looking for scraps of food.

But it’s not the actions of ravens that I find most astonishing; it’s their words. All birds have calls that are meant as warnings or as songs to attract mates. And ravens are no exception, with their shrill caws that draw in brethren to harass hawks or cats.

However, I have heard ravens chatter with each other in ways that resemble casual conversation. I don’t know that they are communicating, but they are definitely saying something.

I’m hardly the first person to note the intelligence of ravens and crows. Some biologists have speculated that if a calamity ever wipes out all higher life forms on Earth, the next intelligent species on the planet would arise from these birds.

The other day I read an article from Audubon Magazine that lends support to this view. Researchers in New Zealand trained New Caledonian crows to pick up objects and put them into tubes. Then the birds were presented with six differently designed scenarios of tubes holding water with food floating on top. But the food was too low in the tubes for them to reach.

Presented with the situations, the crows demonstrated a remarkable ability to take what they had learned from their training and use stones to raise the level of water until the food was within reach. The experiment effectively repeated one of Aesop’s fables, “The Crow and the Pitcher,” where the bird puts stones in a pitcher to raise the water level in order to get a drink.

The tube experiment was similar to a test given to children to assess their cognitive abilities. The researchers concluded that the crows they had worked with performed as well as the average 8-year-old human.

This alone does not prove a crow is as bright as a child. There is much more to intelligence than actions allowing the retrieval of food.

But New Caledonian crows have been observed in the wild using sticks and other objects as tools. The ability to problem solve in multiple abstract ways is obviously a fundamental means of measuring intelligence.

And I can’t say I’m surprised. Over the years, I have observed various creatures in their natural environments. The deliberateness of purpose displayed by ravens differs dramatically from anything else I have ever seen.

So I will keep watching the ravens. And I strongly suspect they are watching me.