Ravens can plan ahead and barter for food

Gwen Vasquez
July 14, 2017

It has been more than 300 million years since the birds have shared a common ancestor with humans or great apes, which suggests that their ability to plan evolved independently of ours. And they prepared for future bartering, too. One of the objects is the tool they can use to open the box, the others are just distractions that will not.

The study only looked at ravens, but it is possible that other corvids, such as crows and scrub jays, possess similar - if not equally impressive - smarts.

It's not like you could ask a raven to arrange your wedding: Ravens showed they could plan by setting aside a tool that they suspected would get them a tasty treat later. Now, scientists in Sweden have come to the surprising conclusion that ravens can also deliberately prepare for future events. Even human kids must be at least 4 years old in order to achieve certain cognition and behavior feats, with control of impulsiveness being particularly challenging, as many parents with youngsters in the "terrible twos" might observe.

Their paper appears in the journal Science.

They then tested whether the birds could pick the right tool from a series of "distracter" objects - such as a wheel, a ball, a metal pipe and a toy auto - then save it and use it later to open the box.

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Finally, ravens were presented with the correct tool to open a box along and an immediate reward, but were only allowed to choose one or the other.

Later again, the birds were given a choice between the box-opening tool (or the food token), distractors, and an immediate reward. "The experiments were mainly chosen because they replicate key experiments with primates". If they dropped it down the tube, the box would release a coveted treat. The study reports that the ravens did a better job than apes at planning for the token task, and about as well as apes for the tool-handling task. Kabadayi says there are many different theories.

Remember that raven in Edgar Allan Poe's poem that kept saying, "Nevermore?"

Parrots would be interesting to test next, he says, because they have a "huge number of neurons in their brains" and have been shown to have good memories.

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