November 13, 2016


Just how clever are ravens? I asked at the Tower of London : To their surprise, scientists have found that these birds are as brainy as apes (Mary Wakefield, 22 October 2016, The Spectator)

Until recently, neuroscientists had little time for birds. It was assumed that brain size (relative to body size) was the most significant factor in animal intelligence. What good could any bird brain be? Plus birds have no neo-cortex, which in mammals is vital for intelligence. A seven-year study at Duke University, North Carolina, tested 36 species for their ability to inhibit impulses (a significant part of being clever) and the results were presented, in 2014, as a league table of animal IQ: great apes top, dogs honourably middling, birds at the bottom.

But those scientists at Duke had not considered crow-kind. This year, researchers from Lund University in Sweden repeated the Duke experiment with corvids (jackdaws, crows and ravens) and found, to their shock, that these birds were the equal of apes. Ravens, Corvus corax, the smartest of all crows, scored 100 per cent on the Duke test. This was not an anomaly. All around the world scientists are discovering that ravens are alarmingly smart. They will make and use tools to get food; they can grasp abstract concepts and use imagination. Ravens will not only stash food in hidey holes to eat later, but, if they think another bird is watching, they'll fake-hide their food to fox the competition. This isn't pre-programmed behaviour -- this is considered strategy.

What's Merlin thinking there, tucked behind the yucca? How does she perceive the world? What goes on in the mind of a raven? Neuroscientists worldwide are puzzling away, testing tame birds with tubes, hooks and bits of string. But here on Tower Hill might lie the best chance of an answer. The Ravenmaster's birds are wild, but contained; they're under constant observation and he understands them almost from the inside out. In his book Mind of the Raven, the biologist Bernd Heinrich writes about those, like Merlin, who choose human mates. 'Observing the birds who had bonded with humans, with an intimacy they normally reserve for other ravens, gave me a different perspective,' he says. 'Perhaps one could not hope to appreciate the mind of a raven, any more than one could claim to know the sociobiology of a remote tribe, without first living with, if not marrying into, it.'

Posted by at November 13, 2016 12:18 AM