Animal’s Daily Corvid News

Corvids (ravens, crows, jays and magpies) are pretty damn smart.  We knew that – anyone who has ever tried hunting crows, as I did as a kid, knows that.  Here’s some more evidence as to just how damn smart they are.  Excerpt:

Self-control has been previously shown to be linked to intelligence in humans, chimpanzees and – in an earlier study by these researchers – in cuttlefish. The greater the intelligence, the greater the self-control.

The new results show that the link between intelligence and self-control exists across distantly related animal groups, suggesting it has evolved independently several times.

Of all the corvids, jays in particular are vulnerable to having their caches stolen by other birds. Self-control also enables them to wait for the right moment to hide their food without being seen or heard.

The results are published today in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

To test the self-control of ten Eurasian jays, Garrulus glandarius, researchers designed an experiment inspired by the 1972 Stanford Marshmallow test – in which children were offered a choice between one marshmallow immediately, or two if they waited for a period of time.

Instead of marshmallows, the jays were presented with mealworms, bread and cheese. Mealworms are a common favourite; bread and cheese come second but individuals vary in their preference for one over the other.

The birds had to choose between bread or cheese – available immediately, and mealworm that they could see but could only get to after a delay, when a Perspex screen was raised. Could they delay immediate gratification and wait for their favourite food?

A range of delay times was tested, from five seconds to five and a half minutes, before the mealworm was made available if the bird had resisted the temptation to eat the bread or cheese.

One of our actual by-gosh gray jays.

All the birds in the experiment managed to wait for the worm, but some could wait much longer than others. Top of the class was ‘JayLo’, who ignored a piece of cheese and waited five and a half minutes for a mealworm. The worst performers, ‘Dolci’ and ‘Homer’, could only wait a maximum of 20 seconds.

The implications of this are huge.  Not just for the intelligence of corvids.   We already knew about that.  Ravens have been shown to understand how displacement works.  When I was a kid hunting crows, I remember having to be patient when calling the wily birds, as a flock would send a scout to investigate the calls; if you shot at the scout, the flock would avoid the location no matter how long you called.  And while I never tested the matter experimentally, I’m pretty damn sure crows can tell the difference between an unarmed human and one toting a shotgun.  And corvids can do this, even with much smaller bodies and skulls than big mammals (like us) because the neurons in their brains are packed much more densely.  Birds make much more effective use of their skull-space than we do.

But look at the link between self-control and intelligence.  Think on that for a moment.  Think on the people you see in news stories, crime reports, and so on, who are generally characterized by a complete lack of self-control.  Seeing any trends?

Some decades back, a friend of mine was dating a gal whose father was an Iowa State Trooper.  I remember him telling us that, over his twenty-year career in law enforcement, that every criminal he encountered had combined three character traits – “greedy, mean, and stupid.”  The proportions varied but all three traits were there in all cases.

Is it possible that research into the intelligence of corvids may yield some insights into human behavior?  Sure seems like there are parallels.