A new study involving a series of cognitive tests shed light on corvids’ surprising ability to interact with each other and the world around them.
Ravens and crows could hardly be called “birdbrained”. They and other corvids are known for assembling their own tools, possessing a form of consciousness and even thinking about the future. This definitely earns them a top spot among Earth’s most intelligent animals alongside dolphins, elephants and great apes.
Regarding the latter, a new research published in Scientific Reports suggests that, at just four months old, these birds can compete in certain cognitive tasks as well as adults chimpanzees or orangutans when put through a series of social and physical tests.
The scientists reached this conslusion through work focusing on eight ravens they hand-raised and tested every four months since they hatched. Using the Primate Cognition Test Battery (PCTB), a standardized test for assessing animal cognition, the researchers tested the birds for their spatial memory, basic math skills, and whether they could learn from and communicate with their handlers. They also looked at object permanence – the ability to know that an object still exists even if it’s out of sight.
Interestingly, the researchers found that the ravens’ cognitive skills did not change during the test period. This suggests corvids are already quite cognitively capable long before they become adults! Although, ravens start to gain independence from their parents when they are about 4 months old, it takes years for them to reach sexual maturity.
For example, one of the tests involved the ravens being shown a treat hidden under a cup. When the researcher moved the cup around, the bird was still able to identify where the food was, reports Rachel Nuwer for Scientific American.
“We now have very strong evidence to say that, at least in the tasks we used, ravens are very similar to great apes,” lead author Simone Pika, a cognitive scientist at Osnabrück University in Germany, tells Scientific American. “Across a whole spectrum of cognitive skills, their intelligence is really quite amazing.”
The results from the birds were also compared to similar tests involving 106 chimpanzees and 32 orangutans performed during a previous study. With the exception of spatial memory, ravens performed equally well as those adult apes.
“Our results suggest that ravens are not only social intellects but have also developed sophisticated cognitive skills for dealing with the physical world. Furthermore, their cognitive development was very rapid and their cognitive performance was on par with adult great apes’ cognitive performance across the same cognitive scales.”
But the study comes with some caveats, as do all studies in fact. The team noted that while these particular birds perform as well as apes, the skillset can’t yet be generalized to all ravens or any member of the corvid family.
Future studies should take into account how these birds develop, and combine data from cognitive tests which don’t solely look at social interactions with humans or how these animals forage.
Despite the limitations, the findings remain intriguing and it’s clear that under the right settings these birds can develop sophisticated cognitive skills. Some scientists think the ravens have developed this enhanced ability due to living in an environment that changes rapidly, and their survival and reproductive success could very well be related to their sophisticated communication and deep understanding of the world surrounding them.