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“A Murder of Crows”
Posted: 22 February 2013 08:04 AM   [ Ignore ]
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What do you guys know about the intelligence of crows?  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/06/060606-crows.html

I saw a “Nature” program the other night on PBS and learned some very interesting things.  According to this, crows mate for life and live in social groups which are the closest analog to human families in the entire animal kingdom.  Crows are the only birds who not only use tools but actually MAKE them by stripping leaves off of a twig and actually bending it into a hook shape!  They are even able to recognize individual human faces!

I guess I’ve developed the habit of being skeptical, though.  The major claim was that crows not only remember individual humans but somehow communicate this information to one another.  By illustration, the experimenters (University of Seattle, I think) put on rubber masks and walked under trees where the crows were nesting.  The birds reacted by making “scolding” calls.  They used three different masks, and as I far as I saw, no attempt was made to show that the crows could distinguish one mask from another.  It seemed to me that they just didn’t like MASKS!  This is impressive enough, but is it evidence of human level intelligence, as the researchers claimed?

The main experiment they showed was an attempt to see if crows communicate.  A pair of nesting birds was shown the rubber masks, and they reacted by “scolding”.  Three of their nestlings were radio tagged and then followed for a year.  The whole point was supposedly to see if the adult birds had taught their children to be afraid of rubber masks.  But so what?  If the adult birds react to masks, wouldn’t their children automatically have the same tendency?  It doesn’t necessarily mean the parents literally “taught” them, does it?

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Posted: 22 February 2013 08:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I saw the show. I think these are pretty well known effects; the thing about learning is that the baby crows SAW their parents scold the guy with the mask, so it’s more an issue of (1) understanding the content of their parents’ communication (“This guy is bad news”), and (2) being able to remember it for a significant amount of time.

There was some talk of “communication”, but that involved different calls for different kinds of danger. It’s not like the parents were able to tell the babies who the bad guys were without the babies seeing the bad guys and hearing the scolding.

Still, the ability to know to whom the scolding referred, and to be able to remember that many months later, is a pretty good cognitive task. The other experiments with tool use (which I’ve also seen before) are similarly very impressive.

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Posted: 22 February 2013 08:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I have seen many of these crow/raven studies and they are all quite impressive. I don’t think, though, advocatus, that anybody is claiming they are as intelligent as us.

And the fact that young birds can actually learn from their parents’ reactions to a specific danger is, I think, quite significant. They are certainly not born with a specific predisposition to be afraid of rubber masks just like they might be born with the predisposition to be afraid of snakes, so they must have learned it. You can compare it to an autistic child. Just like most humans, he will probably be afraid of snakes, but it’s difficult for him to “read” your emotional reaction and learn from it. To learn from the actions of others by copying them is clearly a sign of intelligence. Not many animals can do that.

[ Edited: 22 February 2013 08:46 AM by George ]
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Posted: 22 February 2013 03:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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They are pretty bright, tho.  I heard some of them screaming above my house. I went outside and saw two of them chasing a squirrel around my roof.  The way it would get on and off of the roof was though an olive tree next to the house so it was likely that the squirrel would hop onto the tree to hide from the two crows.  Then I saw another crow sitting in the middle of the tree waiting for the squirrel. 

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Posted: 23 February 2013 05:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Would any of the posters here kill and eat crows when there are plenty of vegan alternatives?  How about our fellow mammals?  Crows are far from the only intelligent birds,  for instance Alex, the talking African Grey parrot.
http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=c4gTR4tkvcM&desktop;_uri=/watch?v=c4gTR4tkvcM

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Posted: 23 February 2013 11:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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advocatus - 22 February 2013 08:04 AM

What do you guys know about the intelligence of crows?  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/06/060606-crows.html

I saw a “Nature” program the other night on PBS and learned some very interesting things.  According to this, crows mate for life and live in social groups which are the closest analog to human families in the entire animal kingdom.  Crows are the only birds who not only use tools but actually MAKE them by stripping leaves off of a twig and actually bending it into a hook shape!  They are even able to recognize individual human faces!

I guess I’ve developed the habit of being skeptical, though.  The major claim was that crows not only remember individual humans but somehow communicate this information to one another.  By illustration, the experimenters (University of Seattle, I think) put on rubber masks and walked under trees where the crows were nesting.  The birds reacted by making “scolding” calls.  They used three different masks, and as I far as I saw, no attempt was made to show that the crows could distinguish one mask from another.  It seemed to me that they just didn’t like MASKS!  This is impressive enough, but is it evidence of human level intelligence, as the researchers claimed?

The main experiment they showed was an attempt to see if crows communicate.  A pair of nesting birds was shown the rubber masks, and they reacted by “scolding”.  Three of their nestlings were radio tagged and then followed for a year.  The whole point was supposedly to see if the adult birds had taught their children to be afraid of rubber masks.  But so what?  If the adult birds react to masks, wouldn’t their children automatically have the same tendency?  It doesn’t necessarily mean the parents literally “taught” them, does it?

There was another experiment where students caught crows on the campus to run some tests. After their release, the crows harangued the students whenever they saw them on the campus. They came back to the campus several years after graduating and the crows saw them and started up the harassment again. I don’t remember which school it was, but it was widely reported. It was probably the one with the masks. The students started using disguise when catching the crows so they could walk about the campus in peace after the release.

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Posted: 24 February 2013 04:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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invegat - 23 February 2013 05:31 PM

Would any of the posters here kill and eat crows when there are plenty of vegan alternatives?  How about our fellow mammals?  Crows are far from the only intelligent birds,  for instance Alex, the talking African Grey parrot.
http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=c4gTR4tkvcM&desktop;_uri=/watch?v=c4gTR4tkvcM

I’ve never eaten any crows, but I’ve killed at least a few dozen in my life.

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Posted: 24 February 2013 07:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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What i find most fascinating is that all this remarkable intelligence is housed in a brain the size of perhaps a golfball?  If such a small brain can do all these things, what is the human brain capable of? It is after all many times the size and volume of a crow’s brain.

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Posted: 24 February 2013 09:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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They are pretty bright, tho.  I heard some of them screaming above my house. I went outside and saw two of them chasing a squirrel around my roof.  The way it would get on and off of the roof was though an olive tree next to the house so it was likely that the squirrel would hop onto the tree to hide from the two crows.  Then I saw another crow sitting in the middle of the tree waiting for the squirrel. 

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For a bird, crows show very intelligent behavior. They’re quick to learn and remember danger, and they perform tasks for the group such as attacking a perceived enemy and scouting an area to ensure there is no danger before the group arrives. They have specific calls for a number of occasions besides the usual chattering mating calls or territorial squawks that other bird species use for communication. And they can be trained to talk, well parroting anyway. I knew a guy who raised one from a chick and he became a household pet. He had a toy he liked to play with, a little pinguin figurine he picked at when his owner set it down on the floor and he had a limited vocabulary, but it was clear. Their enemy is the owl, whom they absolutely hate to see (farmers here keep owl decoys in their fields to keep the crows away from the veggies, they especially like tomatoes) and they have a certain drawn out call I learned to imitate. When a crow hears that call he immediately takes it up and a scout is sent out to find the owl. He circles several times before returning to the group and then they all show up. Also, do to the road kill in our area we have hundreds of them and it doesn’t take very long to watch them show up for a meal. They’ve learned to dodge traffic!

 

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Posted: 24 February 2013 04:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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As mentioned above, African Gray parrots are surprisingly intelligent.  I had one many years ago.  When the neighbor lady would come home, she’d beep her VW Microbus horn so all her eight kids would stream out of the various houses where they were playing with the other kids.  The bird saw my daughter’s two girlfriends run out when their mother hit the horn so it would every once in a while do an amazingly good duplication of the beep, then watch the girls run out of the house.  It apparently got a kick out of manipulating them.

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Posted: 24 February 2013 04:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Write4U - 24 February 2013 07:30 AM

What i find most fascinating is that all this remarkable intelligence is housed in a brain the size of perhaps a golfball?  If such a small brain can do all these things, what is the human brain capable of? It is after all many times the size and volume of a crow’s brain.

A crow’s brain is about 10 grams, a golf ball is 45.93 grams, about 4.6 times more massive.  IMHO mammal intelligence is fundimentally different than bird intelligence.  We need experience to decode bird emotion, we are hard coded to see mammal emotion. 

IMHO we are still missing the necessary information about how neurons work to understand how the 310 neurons of the C. elegans 1mm worm brain works.  http://www.sfu.ca/biology/faculty/hutter/hutterlab/research/Ce_nervous_system.html

Once we get C. elegans several orders of neuron magnitude up we can try to understand insect brains, though there may be currently unknown fundimental system upgrade complications.

To understand intelligent brains - mammals, birds, squids, octopuses, maybe others - we need a fundimental understanding of what is intellgence that we currently woefully lacking.

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Posted: 24 February 2013 07:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Occam. - 24 February 2013 04:11 PM

As mentioned above, African Gray parrots are surprisingly intelligent.  I had one many years ago.  When the neighbor lady would come home, she’d beep her VW Microbus horn so all her eight kids would stream out of the various houses where they were playing with the other kids.  The bird saw my daughter’s two girlfriends run out when their mother hit the horn so it would every once in a while do an amazingly good duplication of the beep, then watch the girls run out of the house.  It apparently got a kick out of manipulating them.

Occam

My brother had an African Grey that could exactly mimic his wife’s annoying laugh. They kept it in the tv room, which is where it learned that trick. It fooled me all the time.  shut eye

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Posted: 01 March 2013 08:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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dougsmith - 22 February 2013 08:10 AM

I saw the show. I think these are pretty well known effects; the thing about learning is that the baby crows SAW their parents scold the guy with the mask, so it’s more an issue of (1) understanding the content of their parents’ communication (“This guy is bad news”), and (2) being able to remember it for a significant amount of time.

That’s the part I’m not clear on—exactly what made the birds decide that a person in a mask is “bad news”?  As far as I could see, they didn’t do anything overt, they just walked past.  On the other hand the lead experimenter, without a mask, was the one who climbed the tree, invaded the nest, and took out the young birds to radio tag them.  Wouldn’t you think the birds would remember THAT?  But a year later, when the same experimenter did a control walk-by of the bird without the mask, the bird didn’t react at all.

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Posted: 01 March 2013 08:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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advocatus - 01 March 2013 08:05 AM
dougsmith - 22 February 2013 08:10 AM

I saw the show. I think these are pretty well known effects; the thing about learning is that the baby crows SAW their parents scold the guy with the mask, so it’s more an issue of (1) understanding the content of their parents’ communication (“This guy is bad news”), and (2) being able to remember it for a significant amount of time.

That’s the part I’m not clear on—exactly what made the birds decide that a person in a mask is “bad news”?  As far as I could see, they didn’t do anything overt, they just walked past.  On the other hand the lead experimenter, without a mask, was the one who climbed the tree, invaded the nest, and took out the young birds to radio tag them.  Wouldn’t you think the birds would remember THAT?  But a year later, when the same experimenter did a control walk-by of the bird without the mask, the bird didn’t react at all.

As I understood it, the lead experimenter put the mask on, and then grabbed the adult birds to tag them. This was before the babies were born.

Then later on, once there were babies in the nest, he put the mask back on and walked past. The adults recognized “the man with the mask” and scolded him, and the babies were able to comprehend that “the man with the mask” was BAD NEWS.

Adults and babies didn’t react when the same guy walked past without a mask. So they were reacting to the mask in particular; presumably they thought it was a different person.

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Posted: 01 March 2013 12:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Thevillageatheist - 24 February 2013 09:49 AM

They are pretty bright, tho.  I heard some of them screaming above my house. I went outside and saw two of them chasing a squirrel around my roof.  The way it would get on and off of the roof was though an olive tree next to the house so it was likely that the squirrel would hop onto the tree to hide from the two crows.  Then I saw another crow sitting in the middle of the tree waiting for the squirrel. 

Occam

For a bird, crows show very intelligent behavior. They’re quick to learn and remember danger, and they perform tasks for the group such as attacking a perceived enemy and scouting an area to ensure there is no danger before the group arrives. They have specific calls for a number of occasions besides the usual chattering mating calls or territorial squawks that other bird species use for communication. And they can be trained to talk, well parroting anyway. I knew a guy who raised one from a chick and he became a household pet. He had a toy he liked to play with, a little pinguin figurine he picked at when his owner set it down on the floor and he had a limited vocabulary, but it was clear. Their enemy is the owl, whom they absolutely hate to see (farmers here keep owl decoys in their fields to keep the crows away from the veggies, they especially like tomatoes) and they have a certain drawn out call I learned to imitate. When a crow hears that call he immediately takes it up and a scout is sent out to find the owl. He circles several times before returning to the group and then they all show up. Also, do to the road kill in our area we have hundreds of them and it doesn’t take very long to watch them show up for a meal. They’ve learned to dodge traffic!

It may be why some call them flying rats.

 

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Posted: 04 March 2013 07:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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dougsmith - 01 March 2013 08:13 AM

As I understood it, the lead experimenter put the mask on, and then grabbed the adult birds to tag them. This was before the babies were born.

Then later on, once there were babies in the nest, he put the mask back on and walked past. The adults recognized “the man with the mask” and scolded him, and the babies were able to comprehend that “the man with the mask” was BAD NEWS.

Thank you for clearing that up.  I was afraid I had missed something, because the experiment as it was didn’t make a lot of sense, at least not to me.

This is what unsettles me.  I caught myself thinking, “There MUST be something I missed because a reputable scientist wouldn’t spend grant money on an experiment that doesn’t make sense.”  And then hot on the heels of that—“Oh no?  Isn’t that how J. B. Rhine convinced an entire generation that ESP was a documented fact, because they all assumed that as a reputable scientist he knew what he was doing and used proper controls?  You can’t necessarily assume that any more.”

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