Crows Intellectually Close to Man

on April 24, 2010

ScienceNOW: “Clever Crows, Complex Cognition?They’re back in the news: crows, which sometimes seem to rival—or beat out—dolphins and chimps for the title of “man’s closest intellectual rival.”

The impressive intelligence of various members of the crow family (and, in particular, genus Corvus) is not a topic we’ve shied away from, having discussed experiments and other news on the topic several times in the past (most recently on February 27). ScienceNOW reports on new research that “suggests that the brainy birds may be even smarter than was previously thought.” It seems previous work has come under some mild criticism, as described by ScienceNOW’s Gisela Telis:

"... the brainy birds may be even smarter than was previously thought.”

[Critics argue that] the birds sought each stick because they wanted it, not because they understood the stick’s potential function. The distinction, although subtle, marks the difference between high- and low-level learning, and it speaks to a central question of cognition research: How do you determine whether an animal is thinking through its actions, or simply learning through association a series of behaviors and combining them?

In response, a team from the University of Auckland devised a new experiment. They gave a group of crows the opportunity to use a stick—which was too short—to try to obtain out-of-reach food. Eventually, the crows learned there was no way the stick could help them access the food, and hence lost interest in the stick. The scientists next divided the crows, teaching only one group about using a variety of sticks to obtain food.

The team then let members from both groups tackle a particularly tricky problem requiring the use of the previously useless short stick. Unsurprisingly, the group that had been trained to use sticks completed the exercise successfully. But so did the members of the other group, with one member “star[ing] at the setup for less than 2 minutes and then perform[ing] the whole trial correctly on her very first attempt.” (You can watch one bird complete the feat via the link above.)

In Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the team argues that the crow’s use of the short stick despite its previous uselessness shows that the crows were thinking about it in the context of tool-use. Commenting on the study, University of Oxford zoologist Alex Kacelnik said, “These animals learn something interesting, no doubt, and can use it flexibly to generate new behavior, a feat that until a couple of decades ago was thought to be restricted to humans and other apes.”

While evolutionists often suggest that the intelligence of apes makes them nearly human—and reminds us of our supposed shared ancestry—studies such as this suggest the opposite. Apes are special, as are crows and all of God’s creations. But only mankind was created in His image (Genesis 1:27).

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