Monday, December 12, 2011

Truth is scarier than fiction

Last week we saw an argument that bad behavior leads to the development of intelligence. This is a worrying notion, since superior intelligence means an animal can commit even more sophisticated offenses. Considering all the bad behavior I have documented, the possibility of such a truly vicious circle means that we need to be watching our backs.

Or, perhaps, we should be watching the skies, because quite a lot of recent research shows that birds - especially crows and ravens - are already a whole lot more intelligent than we thought.

You might read these reports and think them just a curiosity. One recent study showed that crows can remember the color of a container with food in it up to a year later. A good memory might not seem like a threat, but if you had a good memory, you'd remember our earlier post: Crows can also remember the faces of people who have annoyed them, and can use this knowledge to teach other crows who to attack.

Another scientist has shows that wild ravens can use gestures to communicate. You may think that gestures are primitive compared to language. But before this, experts thought that only primates could do this naturally, without being taught by humans. So not only are birds more intelligent than we thought, but have a way to communicate silently when they're sneaking up on us.

Perhaps most ominously, it's been shown that crows have what scientists call a "theory of mind," meaning they can see the world from another's point of view.

Why is this a problem? Most bunnyhugging animal lovers would no doubt jump to the conclusion that this means they are empathetic and care about your feelings. But knowing what another creature knows has a very important consequence: Now you know how to deceive them. And this is exactly what the researcher saw:
Out in the wild, jays and other corvids will hide food in the ground. We experimented with them, hiding food in two types of tray — one full of pebbles which was noisy when disturbed, and another full of sand which was quiet.

If other birds couldn’t see them hiding the food because they were behind a screen, but could still hear them, the jays picked the sand and were as quiet as mice when they buried food. But if other birds were watching, or if they were on their own, they realized that it didn’t matter how noisy they were.

If the birds were being watched when they hid their food, they rushed to move it to another hiding place as soon as the other watching birds were out of sight

The same researcher has also shown crows can plan ahead better than young human children. There's also the fairly old news that they can use tools - but more recent research has shown they can use up to three tools in sequence to achieve a goal.

So these birds know whether you're watching them, can communicate stealthily, hold a grudge and pass it on to their friends, and can use technology. Also take note of this interesting fact about their strength of character: researchers in Australia found that crows are able to delay gratification, waiting up to five minutes to swap a piece of food for something better.

And crows have plenty of reasons to resent us. While most birds are beloved for their grace and beauty, crows are seen as pests. A flock of bluebirds in your backyard would be considered a magical experience; a flock of crows is a different story. Even possibly the most animal-hugging city in the country, San Francisco, uses pesticides on ravens and crows.

It's said revenge is a dish best served cold, and it's clear that these birds have both the planning skills and the moral fiber to wait for the right moment. Like I said, watch the skies.

1 comment:

  1. There's a reason that the collective noun for crows is a 'murder' or (according to this site: a 'storytelling'. Which seems implausible to me unless being assaulted by a flock of crows tends to result in a great deal of storytelling about how close the teller was to certain death.