Ravens: Smarter Than You Think

   It’s a familiar sight. A raven, gliding in low over the kitchen, gear down, lands and moseys through your camp like she owns the place. Later you realize it was just a diversion, while her partner in crime plundered that food box you left open on the boat. Brings back the time one unzipped your pack at Havasu and stole your sunglasses. Or the shameless looting of open ammo cans while the folks hiked at Buck Farm. Ravens are troublemakers, and not to be trusted. We know that. But just how smart are they, really?

   Pretty smart, it turns out. Ravens and their relatives, crows, magpies and jays, are members of the Corvidae, an avian family with the largest brains, relative to body size, of any bird. Corvids have been noted by a variety of cultures throughout history for their cleverness, mischief and sense of humor. Studies are now showing they possess the ability to preconceive and solve problems, a kind of insight. This is a big deal to researchers. Insight (as opposed to instinct or learned behavior) is, thus far, the best evidence of “consciousness” or “intelligence” in animals.

   One anecdote from Finland tells of a species called the hooded crow pulling ice fishermen’s’ lines away from the hole with their bills, putting the line down and walking back on it to hold it, then pulling it up again until they catch the fish at the end. This kind of pre-visualized problem-solving has also been demonstrated in controlled studies, by zoology professor Bernd Heinrich at the University of Vermont. Five hand-raised ravens were shown pieces of meat hanging from their perch by a 25-inch string. (They had never seen string.) The birds were clearly interested in the meat but not able to reach it. After scrutinizing it for awhile, one raven landed, reached down with it’s bill and pulled up a loop of the string, stood on it, pulled up another loop, and repeated this until it had the meat. On the first attempt, without practicing. Three of the other ravens eventually learned the task as well, probably not from the first, as two of them used a “side-step” instead of a “direct pull up” technique to hold the string.

   These tests and others were performed on larger groups of wild-caught ravens, with similar results. One raven learned how to pull up the meat in just 14 minutes, but over half of them never figured it out at all. (Some ravens are smarter than others, just like humans.) This variability in performance argues against such behavior being instinctual, and also against the birds learning by observation. The only plausible explanation, says Heinrich, is that the birds had a mental picture of what they were doing; they were thinking about it.

   Corvids are also famous for their frivolity, exhibiting the most complex play of all birds. They have been known to lie on their backs and juggle objects between their bill and feet, or, hotdogging for their cronies, hang up- side down by one foot from phone lines. Most of us have seen ravens enjoying themselves at the expense of others, harassing hawks and eagles just for fun. And it has yet to be shown (in biological terms, anyway) how they benefit by occasionally flying upside down. David Quammen, in an amusing essay entitled “Has Success Spoiled the Crow?”, speculates that corvids are bored underachievers, possessing so much excess brain capacity that a fairly small part of each day is actually spent making a living. Their penchant for recreation and mischief, then, is simply a manifestation of having so much free time.

   Most corvids are monogamous, and mated pairs typically stay together for life, which can be twenty years or more. Thus, some Colorado River ravens probably have careers of petty terrorism stretching back to the 1970s. So when you find your lifejacket soaked by a raven-punctured silver winebag, or that sack of thawing porkchopsicles pecked full of holes, look at it this way: at least they don’t have hands. All we can do is fight raven delinquency by securing anything they could possibly shred or carry off.

   And face the hard facts: they operate in pairs (often very experienced), and they’re consciously trying to outwit us, probably just for the fun of it.

Jeff Behan