Ravens Have The Rare Ability To Plan Ahead - Almost Like Humans

Not such a birdbrain

Corvids, a family of birds that includes ravens, have also demonstrated the ability to anticipate the future, but only in simple experiments involving the caching of food. These capacities are often considered the exclusive domain of humans and great apes, so their presence in birds comes as a surprise. "It isn't clear that this preferential selection reflects future planning". That points to a complex evolutionary story.

Cognitive scientists from Lund University, Sweden, spent hours watching the corvids to determine that they are able to think ahead to future scenarios. Obviously, that's not a lot of ravens, and hand-raised ravens do not behave like wild ravens. Previous studies have shown that, pound for pound, birds pack more neurons into their tiny brains than mammals, including primates.

Ravens have something of a famous memory, having shown an ability to recall the faces of their captors and others who have wronged them in the past.

Jelly bean now, or burger tomorrow?

Overall, the researchers say ravens are able to make decisions for their futures "outside their current sensory contexts". They were then offered this choice a second time, and chose the food, showing that they were not choosing the tool because it was a highly positive object, but because of its use in the future.

It turned out almost every raven chose the stone, and upon being presented with the box, they used the tool to open it, with a success rate of 86 percent.

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Finally, the ravens were presented with the correct, apparatus-opening tool, distractor tools, and an immediate food reward, but were only permitted to select one item. The birds performed similarly to apes with regard to tool use (even though they don't use tools themselves), and outperformed apes when it came to bartering.

The researchers found the birds selected the tool or token about 73 percent of the time.

According to an accompanying Perspective article in the magazine, ravens' motivation for planning is still unknown, but it may be similar to ours. The birds learned that they could exchange a blue plastic bottle cap with one of the experimenters for the favored doggie treat. In this exercise, the ravens were only allowed to select one item overall. The experiments centered on tool use and bartering with humans, and were created to be similar to experiments carried out with apes, making it possible to draw comparisons between the two. That task seemed more like a test of intelligence than a habit, and it turned out that in planning their actions, the ravens are better than four year old children. They also aced the tasks when the waiting period was extended to overnight.

The first experiment measured whether the birds could plan for an event down the track in intervals of 15 minutes. "Solving problems even if they are not related to the usual daily business is a clear sign of mental flexibility and therefore intelligence".

But sometimes it's more complicated.

Still, it's impressive. Ravens, along with crows, jays and others, belong to a bird group called corvids. That was around 320 million years ago, suggesting that everything from snakes to rabbits should have the same abilities.

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