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The Raven: One Very Smart Creature

The Raven: One Very Smart Creature

Story at-a-glance -

  • Ravens are large-bodied members of the crow family. The ones most common in North America are all black in color with large beaks. Ravens, despite their incredible intelligence, are often maligned in stories and fables.
  • Ravens remember friends and perceived enemies for years after meeting them. Like humans, they possess the ability to memorize and categorize their relationships with other animals.
  • Ravens also use logic to problem-solve – an ability that is lacking or only present to a limited extent in other animals.

By Dr. Becker

Ravens include a group of larger-sized birds belonging to the crow family.

There are several species of raven, but in North America and Europe the Common Raven is the most familiar species. These birds are all black with large beaks. Smaller birds in the same family include jackdaws, rooks, jays and magpies.

Ravens are able to adapt to all kinds of terrain, from mountains to deserts. This is more proof of their innate high intelligence. They can find food in even the harshest conditions. Ravens are scavengers that often follow animals like coyotes and wolves to their prey, and then let the predators break open the carcass, making meat available.

They are even rumored to make calls to attract large predators to dead animals, and to lead wolves to prey by flying ahead of them.

Ravens Are Incredibly Intelligent

Ravens are another bird with an undeserved negative reputation. Across the world, ravens are viewed as creatures of both life and death, but most cultural depictions rely heavily on the spookiness factor and not on the positive features of these amazing birds.

The reality is ravens are social and highly intelligent. A recent study from the University of Vienna published in Current Biology 1 shows ravens can recall friends and perceived enemies for years after meeting them. Like humans, the birds possess the ability to memorize and categorize their relationships with other animals.

Ravens actually use different calls based on how they associate with others. The call used for strangers and rivals is harsh and unwelcoming. It is lower, louder and rougher in tone than a normal call. Bird friends are greeted with a more hospitable call.

The study authors found ravens to have a mental capacity equal to that of dolphins and great apes.

Of course, other animals can also recall information, but what’s special about ravens is their ability to remember cues for such a long time (at least 3 years, and probably longer), and use that information to adjust their behavior.

Using Logic to Solve Complex Problems

Ravens also display the ability to use logic. According to Scientific American2, "Ravens have the ability to test actions in their minds [and] that capacity is probably lacking, or present only to a limited extent, in most animals."

Scientists Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar conducted a series of experiments to demonstrate the ability of ravens to use logic to solve problems.

In one experiment, ravens sat on perches that had pieces of meat attached, dangled from string. To get to the meat, the birds had to perform several complex steps. They had to pull up some of the string, form it into a loop on the perch and hold it with a claw, then pull up more string, form a loop and hold it. These steps had to be repeated at least 6 times before the ravens could get to the end of the string and the meat.

See the experiment here:

“Some animals can be taught how to get food this way,” Bernd Heinrich said. “However, I found ravens could perform this complex sequence of actions straight away. I was extremely surprised the first time I saw one of them do this. These birds have never seen string before or encountered meat hanging this way, yet they worked out exactly what they needed to do to get a treat.”

In the wild, ravens use logic to decide how close to a large predator they can get while the animal is feeding on fresh prey. They must get close enough to get food while avoiding being attacked themselves.

Many birds and animals can perform complex tasks thanks to genetic programming (nest-building, for example). But ravens show the ability to perform complex actions nature does not demand of them -- without testing or trial and error. They behave as if they know what they’re doing. This demonstrates the use of logic – a capacity that is probably lacking or only present to a limited extent in other animals.

So Why Do Ravens Get a Bad Rap?

As fascinating as ravens are, it’s a wonder they’re not more popular. In fact, many people find them not only unappealing, but loathsome.

Maybe humans are fearful of highly intelligent scavengers of other species? Whatever the reason, I think it’s time ravens are acknowledged for their uniquely extraordinary traits. As Bernd Heinrich points out, “… it is now clear the raven is one of the very smartest creatures we know about.”