Clever corvids

There are eight breeding species of corvids in Britain, including Carrion crow, Chough, Hooded crow, Jackdaw, Jay, Magpie, Raven and Rook.  This family of birds is often taken for granted in Britain and even around the word due to the fact that they are so commonly viewed and seemingly unremarkable.  However, more and more research is being conducted on these species investigating their intelligence, which has already been revealed to be superior to many species of animals and may even rival our own.

New Caledonian Crow

New Caledonian Crow

One of the main traits that reveal this intelligence is the fact that these species can use tools to exploit their environment.  Apart from primates, this characteristic is rare in the animal kingdom and it is often considered a human trait.  One of the most impressive examples of this is provided by the New Caledonian crow which is endemic to New Caledonia.  This species uses twigs to extract food from crevices, such as in bark (see video: ) and also drops nuts on roads to allow passing traffic to break them.  In Britain, Rooks and Jays have also presented this ability of tool use during laboratory experiments where they choose the correct shape and size stone to drop into the same shaped tube in order to release food.  This characteristic indicates the possession of imagination as this is required in order to plan ahead and envisage the use for these tools.

New research has been published this month (December 2014) that further highlights these species intelligence as it suggests that they can understand analogies.  This characteristic was thought to be unique to us as it’s the basis of categorisation, creative problem solving and scientific discovery.  This ability has been demonstrated by Hooded crows in an experiment which involved presenting a sample card with a certain pattern to the birds and two other cards; one which possessed the same pattern and one that didn’t.  The crows successfully matched these cards and were rewarded with mealworms.  This experiment was taken further by testing the birds to match cards that weren’t completely identical but were more similar in shape size or colour.  For example, if the birds were presented with a card containing two same-sized circles then they should pick the card with two same-sized squares and not two different sized circles which they did more than three quarters of the time.

Matching card test

Matching card test

There are many potential reasons to explain this bird’s superior intelligence.  One reason could be due to their large brains sizes as corvids have the largest brains in relation to their bodies of any birds. Ravens have the same body/brain ratio as Chimpanzees.  Another reason that could contribute is that these birds are omnivores like us so they often need to possess adaptable thinking in order to exploit a variety of food sources.  This is the likely reason behind the evolution of tool use.  Another significant factor that could have increased these birds intellect is that this is a very social family of birds that can live in large groups.  Social rules can be very complicated and require a variety of cognitive skills, such as predicting another member of the group’s actions and reacting accordingly.  Many species that live in groups often demonstrate adaptable cognitive skills such as primates, dolphins, elephants etc.  In the New Caledonian crow, the knowledge of tool use is passed on through family groups and there is even some evidence that future generations improve previous methods.  This suggests that this species intelligence is still growing which is a very exciting prospect.

As research continues, no doubt more remarkable abilities will be uncovered to solidify the fact that this is a very special and fascinating family of birds.


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