Watch your back: Crows are smarter than anyone realised

Scientists (and Alfred Hitchcock) already knew that crows were clever, able to differentiate between and remember human faces, as well as using tools and having their own sophisticated form of communication (French, n’est-ce pas?).

Now Russian researchers have found that crows are also capable of advanced relational thinking, alongside apes, monkeys, and oh yes, us. That’s surprising not only because we’ve been underestimating their intelligence all this time, but because birds are so physiologically dissimilar to humans. (It also means ‘bird brain’ is no longer an effective insult, and The Birds might have been a documentary.)

A team from Lomonosov Moscow State University trained two hooded crows to identify items by colour, shape, and number. They did this by placing three cups in front of them, each printed with a colour, shape, or number of items. The middle card was the sample, and the birds were asked to pick out the other card that matched. If they succeeded, they got a reward (mealworms, yum).

When they’d mastered this, the researchers had the crows choose two matching pairs without having a sample to guide them. Not only did they do so, they didn’t need any training first. While their past training likely had some impact on their newfound skills, they still showed deductive reasoning and the ability to spontaneously make connections.

The researchers have now published their findings in the journal Current Biology, in a paper written by researchers Anna Smirnova, Zoya Zorina and Tanya Obozova and Ed Wasserman, a psychology professor from the University of Iowa. The researchers plan to continue their work, to find out more about how crows’ brains work and what else they’re capable of.

Wasserman thinks that as research in this area expands, we’ll probably find out all kinds of amazing facts about our furry and feathered friends in future. ‘We have always sold animals short,’ he says.

Image via katieb50’s Flickr.

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