Crows Think and Solve Problems Just Like Humans

A new study reveals how crows possess more intelligence that we've given them credit for.
Fabienne Lang

A murder of crows — the collective noun for a group of crows — sounds ominous enough.

It sounds even more ominous when you add the fact that these birds, along with other corvids (ravens, rooks, and jackdaws) can think similarly to humans and some primates. 

A recent study carried out by researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany showed how these birds can take on different memory tasks and solve problems. 

The study was published in the journal Science on Friday.

Bird brain

Being called a 'bird brain' takes on a whole new meaning now. Going from what was an insult should be turned into a compliment, if 'bird' is in reference to a crow, or raven, that is. 

What the recent study demonstrates is that certain bird brains have as many or more neurons as some highly-evolved primates. It turns out that crows and other corvids know what they already know or don't know, and can solve problems. 

Dr. Andreas NiederProfessor of Animal Physiology and Director of the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen and one of the authors of the study, took on the research in the hope of understanding more universal models of neural basis behavioral functions. This will help in general for the research of memory, strategic planning, and abstraction, among others.


In order to reach its conclusion, the team carried out tests on crows. They trained two crows, Ozzy and Glen, to peck a red or a blue dot, depending on whether they saw a light or not. Red meant "saw it," and blue "saw it — but only after the flash of light."

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As the crows were responding to their task, Nieder and his team were tracking the birds' brains' neurons. Different sensory neurons activated for the different answers. And what the team discovered was that Ozzy and Glen's brain neurons were flashing up and down depending on which color they pecked. 

Both birds correctly selected the colors, which matched up to their brain sensory neurons' responses. 

Nieder told STAT news "I think it demonstrates convincingly that crows and probably other advanced birds have sensory awareness, in the sense that they have specific subjective experiences that they can communicate."

"Besides crows, this kind of neurobiological evidence for sensory consciousness only exists in humans and macaque monkeys," he continued.

It's a big week for the animal kingdom, indeed.

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