Tag Archives: raven

What’s the difference between a raven and a crow?

Although these two terms are used interchangeably, these two species are not the same. Although the differences between them are subtle, we can learn to tell the two apart. So let’s get to it!

Image via Pixabay.

Ravens and crows are closely related. They both belong to the Corvus genus of the Corvidae family of birds. Outwardly, they’re very similar — both are jet black and share several morphological features. Their natural ranges also have a lot of overlap, so they’re often seen (and mistaken for one another) in the same areas of the world.

Here is where the terms get a bit muddy, however. “Crow” is often used as a catch-all term for any bird in the genus Corvus. At the same time, people tend to refer to any larger bird from this genus as a “raven”. Taken together, it’s easy to see why very few people seem to be able to describe with any real detail what truly differentiates these species.

But — lucky you! — we’re about to go through them today.

Crow or raven?

One of the first indications that you’re seeing a crow rather than a raven is that the former generally travels in large groups, while the latter prefers to hang out in pairs. If we happen upon a solitary bird, however, such context clues won’t do us much good; so we’ll have to look at the characteristics of the individual.

Common ravens (Corvus corax) are, indeed, larger than your average crow. This is especially useful to know in rural areas, where size can be a pretty reliable indicator of which of these birds you’re dealing with. Ravens aren’t particularly fond of urban areas and their bustling crowds, however, so if you’re in a city, you’re probably more likely to be seeing a ‘really big crow’ than a raven. As a rule of thumb, crows are about the size of a pigeon and weigh on average 20 oz / o.55 kgs, while ravens are roughly as large as hawks, typically weighing 40 oz / 1.1 kgs.

A stuffed common raven and carrion crow, side by side, at the Natural History Museum of Genoa. Image via Wikimedia.

Meanwhile “crows” — typically the Carrion Crow (Corvus corone) in Europe and American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) in the U.S. — are quite fond of cityscapes and generally not people-shy.

The two species also produce different sounds. Crows vocalize through ‘caw’s or ‘purr’s (sound sample for carrion crows, American crows) while ravens use much lower, rougher croaks. Personally, I find the latter to sound much more ominous, and use this as a rough but reliable guideline when trying to identify ravens.

If vocalizations are not forthcoming, either, we can start looking at the physical features of the birds in question. As far as the plumage is concerned, both species sport jet-black feathers. Raven feathers are very glossy with green, blue, and purple iridescence; they can also have a wet or oily sheen. Crow feathers are iridescent blue and purple but are far less shiny than those of ravens (although they still do have a little bit of sheen to them).

Ravens have larger and curvier beaks than crows. Both sport bristles at the base of the beak, but for ravens, these are much more pronounced. Ravens tend to have ruffled feathers on the throat, whereas crows’ are swept neat and tidy.

On the ground, both birds behave similarly. One reliable way to tell a raven apart here, however, is by how they walk: ravens tend to mix little hops in their gait when moving more rapidly. At a slow pace, a raven’s walking pattern is the same as those employed by crows.

If you happen to spot the birds mid-flight, a few more tell-tale differences become apparent. A raven’s wingspan is much greater than that of a crow (3.5-4 ft / 1-1.2 m and 2.5 ft / 76 cm, respectively) and raven’s wing beats make a distinctive swishing sound while a crow’s are silent. In flight, the raven’s neck is also longer than a crow’s. Crows tend to actively flap their wings more often than ravens, which tend to prefer soaring on rising masses of air (they are heavier, and this helps them save energy). If you see such a bird soaring — gliding along with outstretched wings — for more than a few seconds at a time, chances are it’s a raven.

Ravens like to do all sorts of fancy acrobatics during flight, including somersaults (loops) or even flying upside-down, possibly just for fun. Such behavior is a dead giveaway that you’re looking at a raven, but it’s not very reliable; they tend to only engage in such playful behavior on windy days, or those with powerful thermals (rising masses of hot air) to keep them aloft.

As far as the shape of their wings is concerned, ravens have pointed wings with long primary feathers near their tip. Crows, meanwhile, have blunter wingtips; although their primaries are splayed as well, they are shorter and less pronounced than a raven’s.

Perhaps the single most distinctive difference between the two is the shape of their tails. All the feathers in a crow’s tail are the same length; in flight, their extended tails look like fans, with a rounded outline. Ravens meanwhile have longer feathers in the middle of their tails, giving them a wedge-like outline while the birds are in flight.

The differences between these two species are subtle — as well they should be, they are closely related, after all! The Corvidae family is also very numerous, and each species that belongs to it has its own particularities, some of which may not fit with what we’ve discussed here today. In general, however, they’re distinctive enough to tell apart.

Crows and ravens are some of the most similar — and most often-confused — species in this family. Hopefully the tips here will help you better tell them apart, and impress your friends with your knowledge of Corvidae!

Ravens can transmit negative emotions from one another, just like humans

One of the ravens that participated in the experiments in Austria. Credit: Jessie E.C. Adriaense.

Ravens are some of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom, so it’s no wonder to hear about studies that attribute human-like qualities to these birds. According to recent research, ravens may develop a bad mood when exposed to sulky peers — a psychological phenomenon which is known as negative emotional contagion.

The mood virus

Humans represent the most complex social species on the planet, having devoted incredibly sophisticated verbal and non-verbal tools to communicate with other people. To make social interactions more efficient, humans have also developed various means of reading the emotions and thoughts of those around us. Such skills can even mean the difference between life and death — which explains the evolutionary pressure that led to their proliferation. For instance, we can instantly judge whether another person is in pain from their facial expression, which tells us both that person is in need of help as well as that danger may be lurking nearby. What’s more, another person’s emotions can be quickly transmitted to us.

Studies have shown that simply looking at a person’s facial expressions causes us to adopt a similar facial expression, most often without even realizing it. So, it seems like our social interactions are underlined by shared emotions interfaced by an unconscious emotional mimicry. To top it all, there’s such a thing as emotional contagion — the process in which one person catches and feels another’s emotional state without realizing that the emotion is not really their own. Examples of this phenomenon include the excitement rising among fans in a football stadium, panic spreading through a crowd, and laughter spreading through an audience.

In a new study, researchers show that emotional contagion may also be present among ravens (Corvus corax). These birds are considered among the most intelligent animals—they can anticipate the future, pull fishing lines out of ice holes, make tools from memory, and imitate wolves in order to attract and entice them to break open a tough carcass for food. Given their superior intellect and keen social behavior, researchers wondered whether ravens also exhibit emotional contagion.

The team designed a series of experiments which gauged negative emotional contagion, which is more plainly evident than positive emotions. The researchers at the University of Vienna and the University of Zurich paired eight ravens for the experiments, where each pair was given a choice between a box containing nothing and one containing cheese (their favorite treat). After the birds learned which box was either empty or filled with cheese, the birds were presented with a third box.

This third box was intended to gauge optimism or pessimism — a type of experiment commonly known as a cognitive bias test. In the last part of the experiment, the birds were separated and then one of them was given either carrots (not their favorite) or dried dog food (which they love). The other raven could only observe how the other mate was behaving but was not allowed to see the food of choice. A cognitive bias test was given again by the researchers.

When the ravens saw their paired mates behaving in a negative way, they took longer to investigate the third box presented to them. This suggests that the bad ‘mood’ was transferred to the observer. Ravens who observed normal behavior also exhibited normal behavior.

Studies such as these might help unravel the origin of this quirky psychological phenomenon as well as broader behaviors such as empathy. Previously, researchers found evidence of emotional contagion among other non-human animals, such as monkeys and dogs.

“This result critically expands upon observational studies of contagious play in ravens, providing experimental evidence that emotional contagion is present not only in mammalian but also in avian species. Importantly, this finding also acts as a stepping stone toward understanding the evolution of empathy, as this essential social skill may have emerged across these taxa in response to similar socioecological challenges,” the authors wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

New Caledonian crow that made a paper card from scratch in order to receive a reward. Credit: Sarah Jelbert

New Caledonian crows can make tools from memory

New Caledonian crows are quite possibly the smartest birds out there. Their most impressive intellectual feat is their uncanny tool-making ability. Now, a new study shows that the crows are capable of fashioning tools from memory, which was thought to be impossible to do for a bird.

New Caledonian crow that made a paper card from scratch in order to receive a reward. Credit: Sarah Jelbert

New Caledonian crow that made a paper card from scratch in order to receive a reward. Credit: Sarah Jelbert

Corvids, the cosmopolitan family of oscine passerine birds that numbers crows, ravens, and rooks, are really smart. They play ahead, remember human faces, and solve puzzles.

New Caledonian crows — which live on the remote tropical island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific — are known for using twigs to stir beetle grubs and other small prey out of hiding places. They’re able to do just fine with straight twigs, but sometimes, they fashion hooked twigs — all using just their beaks and feet.

In another mind-boggling example, researchers have witnessed not one, but two crows inserting sticks into objects to carry both at once. Some of these objects were too cumbersome to carry by beak alone, which is telling of the birds’ ingenuity.

But among all of these achievements, one study published in 2002 documented a behavior that has been puzzling scientists ever science. In the study, the authors followed a captive New Caledonian crow called Betty thatt took a piece of wire, bent it into a hook, then retrieved some food otherwise out of reach. Betty used the wire after another crow had taken all the available hooks.

All of this made Alex Taylor, a researcher at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, very curious. How were these birds learning such a sophisticated behavior? The New Caledonian crows’ behavior suggested that the birds were using a sort of “mental template matching,” forming a mental picture of the tool-making process they’d seen in another bird, then copying it. This is also how humans learn new skills, through cultural transmission.

“Under the mental template matching hypothesis, New Caledonian crow tool designs could be passed on to subsequent generations if an individual used or observed the products of tool manufacture (such as their parents’ tools), formed a mental template of this type of tool design (a mental representation of some or all of the tool’s properties), and then reproduced this template in their own manufacture,” the authors of the new study wrote.

Taylor and colleagues devised an experiment to test their hypothesis, involving eight crows that were trained to drop bits of paper into a vending machine. The New Caledonian crows learned that they would be rewarded with food only when they introduced cards of a specific size, either large ones measuring 40 x 60 mm or small cards measuring 15 x 25 mm.

After this initial round of training, all the pieces of papers were taken away and replaced with a single large sheet of paper that couldn’t fit into the vending machine. The scientists then watched with their jaws dropping how the birds tore up the large piece of paper to fashion smaller pieces that matched the sizes that would earn them a reward. According to Taylor and colleagues, this is an example of “manufacturing by subtraction.”

This suggests that the crows formed a mental image of the desired object, which they then materialize into a new tool, the authors reported in Scientific Reports. Now, the researchers think that crows might also possess the ability to improve tools over time, something which they hope to test soon.

Raven.

Two raven lineages that tied the knot yield evidence of ‘speciation reversal’

After some two million years of walking their own path, two species of common raven are tying the knot — this process of “speciation reversal” shows just how indifferent evolution is to taxonomical constraints.

Raven.

Image via Pixabay.

Speciation is a pretty handy tool in evolution’s hand; in short, it allows one species to branch out into two or more other species. A new study now looks at the other side of this process — called speciation reversal. Drawing on almost 20 years of research, the study shows how two previously distinct lineages of common raven can merge back together, and what role this process plays in the grand evolutionary scheme of things.

One big happy species

“The bottom line is that [speciation reversal] is a natural evolutionary process, and it’s probably happened in hundreds, or almost certainly thousands, of lineages all over the planet,” said co-author Kevin Omland, professor of biological sciences at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

“One of our biggest goals is to just have people aware of this process.”

The study’s roots stretch back to almost 20 years ago, when Omland started studying the common raven (Corvus corax). He soon began to suspect that species was, in fact, two separate species. He set out to identify the two, thinking perhaps it was a question of a “new world” and an “old world” raven — but the reality was more complicated. By the turn of the millennium, he reported that there is one common raven lineage concentrated in the southwestern United States, which he dubbed “California,” and another, found everywhere else (including the U.S., Norway, and Russia), which he christened “Holarctic”.

His latest paper peers more closely into the evolutionary history of the two groups. A genetic analysis of 400 birds, spanning the geographical range of the two lineages, he identified suggests that the California and Holarctic groups split some one to two million years ago. However, it also suggested that the two have been merging and hybridizing together for some tens of thousands of years now. The pure California type no longer exists and the population is now made up of pure Holartics and a group of hybrids from the two original lineages.

“The extensive genetic data reveals one of the best supported examples of speciation reversal of deeply diverged lineages to date,” said Arild Johnsen, a professor of zoology and evolutionary biology at University of Oslo and another co-author. “The biggest thing is the degree to which we’ve caught them in the act.”

The analysis also revealed that mitochondrial DNA differences between the Holartics and hybrids amount to about 4%, which the team said was twice as much as would normally be seen for birds to be considered separate species. Still, despite being genetically distinct, the two groups look the same, sound, and behave the same.

The paper further notes that a third group of ravens — which branched off from the California lineage and are known as Chihuahuan ravens — have remained separate from the Holarctics and their hybrids. The Chihuahuans refuse to interbreed with the two groups despite the fact that their geographical ranges overlap over large swaths of land. Omland is unsure what causes this.

“The Chihuahuan raven doesn’t want to play,” said Omland. “It stays by itself and doesn’t interbreed with the others.”

Right now, the team is trying to determine what made the two lineages merge, including whether humans inadvertently played a part. They’re also looking at genetic data from ravens that lived in the early 1900s to determine if the hybridization process picked up speed since then.

The paper “Genomic evidence of speciation reversal in ravens” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

What creature plans and understands what’s in store? Quoth the raven, Nevermore

We knew that ravens were smart but they’ve surprised us once again: they can make plans and delay gratification, just like humans and other primates.

In a rural research farm in Sweden, Mathias Osvath, a cognitive zoologist at Lund University in Sweden devised a fairly straightforward, though painstaking plan. For five years, Osvath grew a group of ravens. He played with them, observed them, and trained their intellect. He witnessed them getting smarter and develop special relationships with his students (one of them liked pecking on a student’s head). It was a fascinating process in itself, but this wasn’t just a hobby. He wanted to see how smart the ravens can get. Together with graduate student Can Kabadayi, he moved on to the next stage.

They took a series of experiments previously used to assess the cognitive capacity of apes, and replicated them. But instead of using apes or any kind of primate, previously thought as the only animals able to pass the tests, they used the ravens.

We’ve known for quite a while that ravens are no bird brains. Previous research had already shown that they can use tools, solve a dazzling array of problems, and even hold a grudge. Osvath and Kabadayi took it one step further. They first taught the birds to use a tool to solve a puzzle — it’s a remarkable achievement in its own right, but this had been demonstrated before. The goal of the puzzle was to open a box with a delicious treat which the birds love.

Then, researchers took both the tool and the box away. After one hour, they gave the ravens a choice of other things, including the tool (but not the box), and a smaller reward. After an additional 15 minutes, the original box was brought back to them. The birds didn’t take the bait: 80% of ravens took the tool and waited for the big reward, and 86% of them then used it to open the box and take the reward. When the test was re-taken with a 17-hour delay in returning the box to the ravens, results were even better: 90% of the ravens took the tool. They did so well that they surpassed not only primates, but even small children.

Their stellar performance stunned researchers.

“It’s not just the fact they have these skills independently. But to use them together to make these complex decisions, that’s what makes it so amazing,” said Osvath, in Lund, Sweden.

He compared it to a decision process we’d attribute to humans, not animals.

“Say you’re planning a trip to London, and you know how often it rains there. So you bring an umbrella, even though it’s not raining now where you are. That’s what we are talking about here, planning based on past experience,” Osvath said.

Other researchers have also praised the study. They say it’s a significant breakthrough in our understanding of these birds’ intellect. Despite their previous accomplishments, there was nothing to indicate that ravens could understand a concept as complex as delayed gratification.

“There was no real proof that [ravens] actually can transfer a cognitive ability in future planning to other behaviors,” says Markus Böckle, a professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge and co-author of a related commentary in Science who was not involved in the study. “This is the first time we have clear evidence in any animal” besides humans.

This also takes another thing from the ‘unique’ list of human characteristics. The fact that ravens outperformed not only all apes but also four-year-old children raises a lot of question about intelligence itself. How did creatures as different as primates and birds exhibit similar cognitive capacities? Is it a capacity that emerged from a common ancestor, or is it something that developed in parallel? We don’t really know yet.

“It is really surprising to see ravens were better at solving two planning tasks than great apes and children presented with similar problems,” says Alex Taylor, an animal cognition expert University of Auckland in New Zealand who was not involved in the new study.

However, Taylor also notes that the results are not beyond interpretation. He suggests that instead of understanding the experiment and making the optimal decisions, ravens might actually be outsmarting the experiment (which would be just as interesting). He says that ravens might not be in fact thinking of the future, but would just pick the object they associate with the most food, and figure things out as they go.
Future experiments will help sort out this intriguing possibility, but for now, one thing’s for sure: we humans and our intellect are not as unique as we like to think.
The study has been published in Science.

Ravens remember the faces of people who duped them into unfair deals

You better be nice to ravens — or they’ll remember you treated them badly next time they see you. According to a recent study, ravens (Corvus corax) can distinguish and remember people who treated them unfairly in the past shedding more light on the complex social lives of some of the most intelligent creatures on there.

Don't be a dick with ravens, like this fox. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

Don’t be a dick with ravens, like this fox. Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

A raven’s grudge

In the classic Aesop fable “The Fox and the Raven”, a raven is tricked by a sly fox into dropping the delicious piece of cheese from its beak. The fox flatters the bird asking it to sing or speak, depending on the variation of the story. ‘You were not dumb, it seems, you have indeed a voice; you have everything, Sir Crow, except brains,’ says the fox who runs off with the yummy morsel.

The truth is ravens have plenty of brains. These birds score on par with chimps on cognitive tests, use gestures to point out things and communicate, they can also tell if someone’s looking at them or not and can remember people’s faces.  In one logic test, the raven had to get a hanging piece of food by pulling up a bit of the string, anchoring it with its claw, and repeating until the food was in reach. Many ravens got the food on the first try, some within 30 seconds. In the wild, ravens have pushed rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests, stolen fish by pulling a fishermen’s line out of ice holes and played dead beside a beaver carcass to scare other ravens away from a delicious feast.

As for the fox in Aesop’s fable, it better be careful next time. According to a new paper published in the journal Animal Behavior, ravens learn to prefer trainers who have treated them fairly over those who have ripped them off.

The conclusion was reported by researchers in  Vienna and Sweden who trained common ravens to trade crust of bread for a morsel of cheese with human partners who acted as the broker. After this initial round, the researchers observed what happened when the birds dealt with ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ partners. The latter humans would simply keep the bread after it was offered by the raven and scandalously ate the cheese. Trick me once but you won’t trick me twice, the raven must have thought. Indeed, the ravens purposely avoided the cheating humans in separate trials a month later. This can only mean that ravens not only have a sense of fairness, they hold grudges for at least a month too, signaling a fine memory. They likely hold on to these grudges for far longer than a month, much like my ex-girlfriend.

Ravens aren’t the only non-human animals with a sense of fairness. Dogs and wolves share it, as do chimpanzees and likely many other creatures.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Crows are the first non-human animals we know of that employ tools to carry objects

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Corvidae birds have exceptionally large brains and are adept tool users, despite having no hands, let alone opposable thumbs. New Caledonian crows are no exception. Scientists have witnessed captive crows add another remarkable tool use to their already rich repertoire. Not one, but two crows were seen inserting sticks into objects to carry both at once. Some of these objects were too cumbersome to carry by beak alone, which is telling of the birds’ ingenuity.

Four such instances were observed by researchers at Lund University in Sweden, including the slipping of a wooden stick inside a metal nut or into the hole of a large wooden ball. In all instances, both stick (carrying tool) and the hooked objects were flown away by the crows, the researchers reported in the journal Animal Cognition.

Scientists are not sure at this point if this kind of behaviour is employed by other crows or Corvidae members such as ravens in the wild. It’s possible that one of the crows was the innovator, and the other captive individual observed, learned and mimicked this. It’s really difficult to tell at this point, judging from the actions of only two individuals. But if you were to ask me, I see no reason why wild crows aren’t doing this already — to carry food too big for their beaks, for instance, and stash it for later use. Indeed, a 2002 paper published in Science recounts how a New Caledonian crow named Betty took a piece of wire, bent it into a hook, then retrieved some food otherwise out of reach. Betty was also captive, though.

Tools and objects used for insert-and-transport tool use. a Experimental square wooden stick. Credit: Animal Cognition, Springer

Tools and objects used for insert-and-transport tool use. A is an experimental square wooden stick. Credit: Animal Cognition, Springer

Wild crows doing the same wouldn’t be surprising considering their track record. Time and time again, animal behaviorists have observed crows doing amazing things with their environments to solve new problems. Besides crafting hooks to reach food from sticks, crows can recognize people’s faces and understand water displacement on the same level as a child. That’s among other amazing things. Most people don’t hold crows in high esteem due to their allegedly repulsive appearance (I think they look very cool, actually), which is a shame. By judging crows by their cover, they might be missing out on a spectacle of nature. Me, you and crows aren’t all that different in many ways.

 

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Ravens can tell if someone is watching even though they don’t see them

If you can see a person or an animal, then it is possible to be seen back. It’s a basic caveat they train in the military when discussing camouflage. What’s more, if you suspect you’re being seen, you must minimize your movements. This level of abstraction was thought to be unique to humans. It’s been recently shown that ravens too are capable of imagining someone is spying on them and take greater care hiding their food, as reported in Nature Communications.

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Image: Pixabay

University of Vienna researchers trained 10 ravens over the course of six months in a special experimental setup. These were placed in adjoining rooms separated by a window, each raven with its own space. Initially the window was left uncovered, so one of the two ravens that faced each other could see when the other was hiding food. Later, the cover was hung leaving only a small peephole which the ravens learned they could use to see or be seen through.

(a) Observed (Obs) condition: The cover of the window is open (white bar) and the focal subject (storer, st) caches food in the visual presence of a conspecific (observer). (b) Non-observed (Non) condition: The cover of the window is closed (grey bar) and the focal subject caches food in visual isolation of a conspecific (non-observer). Both observers and non-observers make sounds in the experimental chamber, which are audible to the storer. (c) Peephole (Peep) condition: The cover of the window is closed (grey bar) but one of the two peepholes (small white square) is open; the focal subject caches food in the absence of any behavioural cues, whereas the presence of conspecifics is simulated via playback of sounds recorded from non-observed trials (symbolized by loudspeaker). Credit: Nature Communications

(a) Observed (Obs) condition: The cover of the window is open (white bar) and the focal subject (storer, st) caches food in the visual presence of a conspecific (observer). (b) Non-observed (Non) condition: The cover of the window is closed (grey bar) and the focal subject caches food in visual isolation of a conspecific (non-observer). Both observers and non-observers make sounds in the experimental chamber, which are audible to the storer. (c) Peephole (Peep) condition: The cover of the window is closed (grey bar) but one of the two peepholes (small white square) is open; the focal subject caches food in the absence of any behavioural cues, whereas the presence of conspecifics is simulated via playback of sounds recorded from non-observed trials (symbolized by loudspeaker). Credit: Nature Communications

Once bootcamp was over, the researchers played an audible track which sounded like a raven was in the process of hiding food (scratching, pecking, dirt being displaced). Only when the peephole was left uncovered did the raven bother to take extra care in hiding its food. The bird hurried to hide the food and once the audio track stopped playing, the raven returned to the hiding spot to improve the concealment. If the peephole was closed the raven was careless, concluding there was no one spying anyway.

Research on chimpanzees suggests that they too can understand what others are seeing. Like other animals, they do so by studying “gaze cues” like head and eye movements. It’s not clear whether chimpanzees or other animals can pick up these cues when they can’t actually see the face or eyes of whomever might spy them.

“This strongly suggests that ravens make generalisations based on their experience, and do not merely interpret and respond to behavioural cues from other birds,” said Thomas Bugnyar, a professor at the University of Vienna.

Ravens are very, very smart animals capable of sophisticated mental abilities, like other corvids. In one logic test, the raven had to get a hanging piece of food by pulling up a bit of the string, anchoring it with its claw, and repeating until the food was in reach. Many ravens got the food on the first try, some within 30 seconds. In the wild, ravens have pushed rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests, stolen fish by pulling a fishermen’s line out of ice holes, and played dead beside a beaver carcass to scare other ravens away from a delicious feast. Ravens can also imitate people or use gestures to point out things and communicate.

raven-treat

A male raven showing off an object in his beak to his peers. "Hey raven-lady, look at my thing! Here's some stuff, wanna touch it?" (c) Thomas Bugnyar

Ravens use gestures to point out things and communicate

We’re inclined to think that gestures are reserved to species which at least possess some kind of articulated limbs. However, scientists have shown that wild ravens purposefully gesture, making it the first time this type of be­hav­ior has been ob­served in the wild ex­cept in the clos­est rel­a­tives of hu­mans, primates.

A male raven showing off an object in his beak to his peers. "Hey raven-lady, look at my thing! Here's some stuff, wanna touch it?" (c) Thomas Bugnyar

A male raven showing off an object in his beak to his peers. “Hey raven-lady, look at my thing! Here’s some stuff, wanna touch it?” (c) Thomas Bugnyar

Sure, you might argue that you’ve seen your dog maybe come out at you and move or touch you with its snot to show you a certain direction, most likely where you keep your food. Researchers claim, however, that these aren’t naturally developed gestures, instead, they’ve been infused by training.

In the new study, Si­mone Pi­ka of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Or­nith­ol­o­gy in Mu­nich, Ger­ma­ny, and Thom­as Bugn­yar of the Uni­vers­ity of Vi­en­na ob­served wild rav­ens in the Cum­ber­land Wild Park in Grü­nau, Aus­tria. What they observed amazed them greatly.

RELATED: Urban birds have bigger brains

The ravens would use their beaks in the manner a human uses its hands to show and of­fer ob­jects such as moss, stones, and twigs. Like all super-efforts on Earth, these gestures were directed towards the opposite sex. As if gesturing wasn’t enough, the ravens would sometime interact with each other using the object, as the researchers could observe the ravens touching or clasping their bills together, or by manipulating the item together.

“Most exciting is how a species, which does not represent the prototype of a ‘gesturer’ because it has wings instead of hands, a strong beak and can fly, makes use of very sophisticated nonvocal signals,” Pika told LiveScience.

Ravens, and their close relatives, crows, and magpies, have been found to be of extreme intelligence for a bird, some actually rivaling great apes in tests, and rav­en mat­ing pairs show rel­a­tively com­plex com­mu­nica­t­ion and high coop­era­t­ion. The latter part is of severe importance since a further study of the raven, correlated with other data, might help decipher the origin of gesture in human beings.

“Ges­ture stud­ies have too long fo­cused on com­mu­nica­tive skills of pri­ma­tes on­ly. The mys­tery of the ori­gins of hu­man lan­guage, how­ev­er, can only be solved if we look at the big­ger pic­ture and al­so con­sid­er the com­plex­ity of the com­mu­nica­t­ion sys­tems of oth­er an­i­mal groups,” said Pi­ka.

The researchers’ findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications.