Tag Archives: Crow

Crows Outperform Pigeons and Primates in Learning a Basic Concept

24 Feb

A paper just published in Psychological Science:

Corvids (birds of the family Corvidae) display intelligent behavior previously ascribed only to primates, but such feats are not directly comparable across species. To make direct species comparisons, we used a same/different task in the laboratory to assess abstract-concept learning in black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia). Concept learning was tested with novel pictures after training. Concept learning improved with training-set size, and test accuracy eventually matched training accuracy—full concept learning—with a 128-picture set; this magpie performance was equivalent to that of Clark’s nutcrackers (a species of corvid) and monkeys (rhesus, capuchin) and better than that of pigeons. Even with an initial 8-item picture set, both corvid species showed partial concept learning, outperforming both monkeys and pigeons. Similar corvid performance refutes the hypothesis that nutcrackers’ prolific cache-location memory accounts for their superior concept learning, because magpies rely less on caching. That corvids with “primitive” neural architectures evolved to equal primates in full concept learning and even to outperform them on the initial 8-item picture test is a testament to the shared (convergent) survival importance of abstract-concept learning.

The article’s conclusion contains this passage:

So, how did the apparently primitive bird brain that evolved from dinosaurs become competitive with, and even initially outperform, the abilities of what has been considered a more elaborate primate brain to perform abstract-concept learning, which involves thoughts and processes considered to be of the highest cognitive order? The answer most certainly lies in evolution itself, a multimillion-year process. Environmental pressures (social and otherwise) undoubtedly selected for and shaped these different neural architectures to successfully accomplish many of the same essential and intelligent behaviors for survival, an example of convergent evolution in which organisms not closely related (i.e., not monophyletic) independently evolved similar traits or functions as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches. But the example of convergent evolution presented in the current study is comparatively novel and unique because its identification required special tests of the cognitive ability (trait) for the cognitive function of fully learning a same/different abstract concept to be revealed. Other examples of convergent evolution have been based on some obvious physical trait, such as wings, which typically can be identified from fossil records and have an obvious function of flying (some insects, birds, and bats).

The bird has a mind of its own

10 Feb

When I saw this I though of this passage from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

(Hat tip to BoingBoing)

The reasoning ability of crows

1 Apr

Jean Piaget famously observed that children’s ability to reason about the world changes over time. Here is a video of a child being tested on the classic Piaget conservation tasks:


Now watch a crow demonstrate sophisticated reasoning skills:



See this blog post by biologist Jerry Coyne for a detailed explanation.

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