Ravens have played many roles in mythology, and probably just as many in our culture. But there’s one thing pretty much all descriptions agree on – they’re pretty clever, especially for birds. But just how clever are they? According to a new study performed by researchers from the University of Houston, Ravens are capable of abstract thought and show basic theory of mind.
Ravens are quite witty and intelligent
Ravens are pretty much omnivore, being able to survive off of anything. However, since they are carrion creatures, they have a particular fondness for meat. Especially if the meat is slightly decomposing.
As soon as they get the opportunity, ravens feast on whatever corpses they find. But they know that they probably won’t get the chance to do so again for a while, so they get take-away. Their version of doggy bags consists of their throat pouches, which are filled with the remaining meat.
And since they can’t just leave the meat laying around, they usually burry it in places only they can find. Or at least in places they think only they can find, since ravens tend to spy on each other and to dig up each other’s meat caches.
They also engage in diversion tactics, pretending to bury their meat somewhere else, getting out of view before digging and even avoiding the meat cache’s location afterwards. These habits all show some sort of intelligence, but the researchers couldn’t be sure if it was just a behavioral response or if they actually suspect that other birds are trying to steal their food.
The peephole experiment
In order to find the answer to the question “Do ravens actually think about what other ravens are thinking, or are they just reacting instinctively?”, the team of researchers set up an interesting experiment.
Two rooms were built with a window between them and with a peephole visible only when the door was closed. The birds were there given food with the windows opened, and their behaviors were observed. As expected, they hid their food when seeing other birds.
Next, ten birds were taught how to use the peephole by having a scientist hide a piece of cheese while the ravens were looking at him through the hole, only to find and eat the cheese later on.
The birds now acquainted with the peephole, the last part of the experiment started. The ravens were given meat with the window closed, but with the other raven noises coming from the other room through the peephole.
Knowing how the peephole worked, the birds assumed that other ravens were observing them from the other side, and engaged in evasive caching maneuvers, hiding their meat more carefully.
By showing this level of independent and abstract thought, slightly edging towards paranoia, the ravens were finally proven to have theory of mind, which basically means to think about what someone else might be thinking.