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Are Crows Smarter Than Children?

In a battle of wits, could a bird outsmart a kindergartner? Don’t be too quick to say no: One clever young bird solved a problem that has stumped 5-year-old children, according to a new study. 

The bird—a New Caledonian crow named Kitty—figured out that dropping rocks in one water-filled tube was the key to raising the water level in another, seemingly unconnected tube, giving her access to a floating morsel of meat. (Read “Minds of Their Own” in National Geographic magazine.)

A New Caledonian crow. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi, National Geographic Creative
A New Caledonian crow. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi, National Geographic Creative

To solve this problem, Kitty needed to decipher a confusing cause-and-effect relationship, basically akin to figuring out that if you flip a switch on the wall, a ceiling light will turn on.

This mental ability was once thought to be restricted to humans, but causal reasoning—the ability to understand cause and effect—has now been identified in a handful of animals, from chimpanzees to rats. 

No Birdbrain

Crows are the Einsteins of the bird world, renowned for their ability to make tools and solve complex puzzles. (Watch a video of a New Caledonian crow solving problems.)

Their impressive mental capacity was even apparent to the ancient Greeks. In one of Aesop’s fables, a thirsty crow is presented with a dilemma when he cannot reach the water at the bottom of a pitcher. He figures out that the water level rises when he drops pebbles into the pitcher, and many pebbles later he is rewarded with a drink.

As it turns out, there’s some truth to this fictional story. A study published earlier this year reported that New Caledonian crows will place rocks in water-filled tubes if they can’t reach a piece of meat that is attached to a floating cork. (See National Geographic’s photos of brainy animals.)

And now a new study, funded by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program and published July 23 in the journal PLOS ONE, extends that work by showing that crows can solve an even more complicated puzzle, figuring out that dropping rocks in one tube raises the water in another tube.

Of the six birds that took the test, only Kitty—a bird caught in the French territory of New Caledonia (map) and briefly kept captive—passed. Incredibly, she was no more than eight months old when she managed that feat.

Smarter Than Children?

When a similar test was given to 64 people in the 4-to-10 age range, the older children passed with flying colors, but most 4- and 5-year-olds couldn’t figure it out, even after multiple trials.

To be fair, the experimental setup given to crows was slightly different than the one given to children, so it’s not known if younger children would be able to pass the exact same test as Kitty.

More work will be needed to figure that out, said study leader Corina Logan, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (See “Crows as Clever as Great Apes, Study Says.”)

Regardless, it’s fair to say that Kitty has some rather impressive cognitive abilities, on par with those of humans much older than herself.

John Marzluff, a crow expert at the University of Washington in Seattle who was not involved in the study, agreed: “The remarkable success of some crows at solving difficult problems … is very similar to [individual variation in] the performance of humans.

“I would expect some birds to be stars and others to be slower on the uptake, just as I would expect this of children. That this was the case is important and suggests individual variability in attention, learning ability, focus, and skill exists in crows just as it exists in people,” Marzluff noted by email.

Leveling the Playing Field

New Caledonian crows rarely, if ever, encounter the situation described in Aesop’s fable, but the novelty of the task is not a downside—it’s what makes the study valuable, Logan said.

Choosing a task that crows likely won’t experience in the wild “levels the playing field to compare [cognitive abilities] among species,” including humans, she said. (Related: “Fish as Good as College Students in Numbers Test.”)

“It’s a way of getting at what they know about the world and how they solve problems.”

It also goes to show that being called a birdbrain on the playground isn’t such an insult after all.

Follow Katie Langin on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Bill Robertson
    Aberdeen Scotland
    August 9, 6:07 am

    When on golf tee number nine on our local golf course my friends and I have to be wary of our unattended golf bags as the crows manage to open the zip fasteners and steal our snacks.

  2. Jay T
    August 8, 10:11 pm

    A must read ‘Mind of the Raven’ by Bernd Heinrich!

  3. PYT
    August 8, 6:12 pm

    I used to feed a family of crows from the windows of my third floor apartment. I was particularly fond of a fledgling crow who followed me from window to window, begging for peanuts. This went on for months. One morning an adult crow, who, I believe was his father, noticed this affectionate interaction and was most displeased. He walked over to his Crowlet and cawed loudly right in his face. The young crow visibly wilted and appeared terrified.

    I stuck my head out the window and cawed angrily at the adult crow (whom I happened to already know). He jerked around, hopped to the nearest branch, turned to face me and started cawing right back at me. This cawing war went on for several minutes until hoarseness forced me to capitulate. He’d won.

    Crows are definitely smart. But we shouldn’t compare their intelligence to that of human children on the basis of the results of several lab experiments. It’s comparing apples and oranges.

  4. RSG
    USA
    August 7, 11:07 am

    Mark – I am not convinced you are correct about animal send offs. We buried a horse this year and her pasture mate spent days at the grave site. She did not witness the digging or burying of her friend but she may have smelled it. She did no calling to her friend as she had when she saw the body. It was sad and seemed very like a funeral.

  5. Allan
    Northern British Columbia
    August 7, 9:47 am

    I regularly feed crows and they announce my presence for the benefit of others in anticipation of the next feast. Whenever I am working in the yard they proceed to call as if reminding me they are present and letting me know they are ready to eat. When other family members appear they invariably give a warning call and they do not stick around. Love these birds!

  6. Chris Madden
    Lockhart, NSW
    August 7, 5:26 am

    In outback Australia it was said that crows could count to three. When a crow was stealing egg,s for someone to stay in the chook house to shoot at the crow, four people had to walk over and three come back or the crow would know one had stayed there.

  7. Noah Ger
    August 7, 5:10 am

    Jelena, yours is insightful: quite a rare gift.

  8. Noah Ger
    Nairobi, Kenya
    August 7, 5:07 am

    Not a fair comparison. Get the bird’s relative age by factoring it’s state of mental development vs a kindergarten’s five year kid’s mind.

  9. Stevo
    UK
    August 7, 3:35 am

    Who thought that problem solving was solely a human ability? I know many humans whom do not possess this ability!! Like many other comments here, many if not all animals have vital abilities to meet their needs to survive. The only difference between humans and other animals is that other animals adapt to their environment whereas humans adapt their environment to suit themselves.

  10. Marcelino
    Dar Es Salaam
    August 7, 3:31 am

    i have seen once a clever crown, meat was being cooked in a pot at our balcony, the pot was covered the crown picked(by dropping it down), and took a piece of meat and flew to a nearby shallow water pond soaked the meat in Dirt water to cool down the meat.

  11. Fornik Tsai
    Taiwan
    August 7, 3:21 am

    Depends on what aspect of smart.

  12. Hartmut Jager
    Australia
    August 7, 1:31 am

    Indeed , not much new in that Crows are smart. However, it should give us pause, to respect all animals and recognize the help and contributions they have given to us (animal) humans. For example, consider the horse, without it we would not have been able (via transport and travels) to progress as fast as we did.

  13. Rajkumar Oberoi
    India
    August 6, 10:14 pm

    Yes. I had seen myself a crow when offered a biscuit on my boundary wall picked up it in beak flew about 30 feet near a water accumulated in road pit soaked it in water momentarily,then flew to the nearest tree alas i could not v ideograph it.

  14. Jim
    Singapore
    August 6, 9:01 pm

    In her comment, “LIN” argued “Why not go and find food and water that is easier to reach and uses up less energy? Not so smart after all then.” I was amazed by the stupidity of this comment. In the wild, resources are not always easy to get; as a matter, they are almost always extremely hard to come by. That’s why more intelligent species that can procure hard-to-get resources have a better survival chance.

    Judging from Lin’s another comment, it appears that she never had to get anything for herself (always given by her parents). Apparently, she doesn’t need much intelligence.

  15. Mark
    Napa Valley CA
    August 6, 8:20 pm

    Crows never cease to amaze me, & I totally enjoy watching ‘em!

    They work together to fend off predators, protect their young & find food; they discipline members of the flock for being selfish & not sharing…

    and they even conduct funeral ceremonies as sendoffs to fellow members of the flock who’ve passed away! From what I’ve read they’re the ONLY animal on the planet other than humans who do that! Several species grieve over the loss of loved ones (elephants, chimps, apes, humans, etal) but only humans, crows & ravens have THAT much self-awareness & understanding of the passage of time to have actual sendoffs!

    (And you can tell when they’re doing so when you see ‘em silently & somberly lined up (as if in deep thought) in a row across treetops or some other similar high roost.

    They[re also known for their ability to recognize faces years after first seeing someone, remembering who they can trust & who they can’t, warning the flock of people to watch out for! It really amazes me, and I swear that by watching ‘em one can even get a sense of things going on in the area! If you learn to recognize their habits & calls, you can actually gain a surprising amount of useful information.

  16. Maccoach
    Canada
    August 6, 7:53 pm

    I have just read a fascinating book :”What the Robin Knows.” A lot more than we thought he did! Now I am starting “Gifts of the Crow.” I recommend both books to anyone interested in the intelligence of the birds.

  17. Carole Forster
    Victoria
    August 6, 7:53 pm

    The crows on our golf course hang around the 13th Tee Box because it is the first hole past the snack bar. They wait until the golfer is teeing off and then they swoop down and steal the golfer’s sandwich. I thought I would outsmart the crow so I zipped my sandwich into my golf bag. Imagine my surprise when I returned to my golf bag to find that the crow had unzipped my bag and stolen my sandwich. Those sneaky crows will follow you looking for an opportunity to steal your food until they see that you have finished eating, then they return to the Tee Box to try to cadge food from the next group of golfers.
    We have a bird bath in our garden and the crows bring stale bread to marinate in the bird bath until it is soft enough for them to eat. Very canny birds.

  18. Karen
    North Hollywood, CA
    August 6, 7:01 pm

    I used to feed peanuts to a small flock of crows behind the building where I used to work years ago; the crows must’ve been able to recognize me, because even when I came out at different times than I usually did at the beginning or end of my shift, they would all still come flying down the moment I emerged from the building, waiting for me to throw them their peanut treats! :) I also saw the nature documentary on PBS about crows mentioned in other comments, about how not only were there intelligent and social, but also were able to recognize certain faces years later after they’d seen them, and teach their offspring to recognize them as well. Such intelligent and beautiful birds! Sounds to me like that “Lin” person who commented above that SHE didn’t think crows were “so smart after all” is just one of those insecure types who is so convinced of “human superiority” and threatened by the possibility that some animals might be just as intelligent (or in her case, even more so) as us that they refuse to accept ACTUAL scientific evidence & studies shown right before their eyes from scientists who actually know what they’re talking about, rather than just arrogantly refuting what they don’t want to accept!

  19. Jake
    USA
    August 6, 1:54 pm

    I’ve seen magpies work in teams of two. Our dog hates magpies. They evidently figured that out so one would land about 25 feet from her knowing that she would chase him. Then, the other would land in her food bowl and steal some pieces of her food. Then, she would chase the one on her food bowl and then the other one would land in the bowl and take some pieces. After that happened a few times, she caught on, so once she saw one of them, she would immediately run to her bowl and not even bother chasing them.

  20. JC
    Earth
    August 6, 1:29 pm

    It is a reflection on us humans that we consider animals DUMB because they don’t speak our language. They are sentient beings, proven capable of learning much of human language, who try to communicate with us. It is we who are incapable of learning THEIR language(s).

  21. Theresa Santi
    California
    August 6, 1:22 pm

    I have BL. Crows everywhere & I feed them popcorn. We even crow @ each other. <3

  22. John
    August 6, 12:38 pm

    This certainly is something to crow about.

  23. Kristin Erika Haskins
    United States
    August 6, 11:55 am

    To Jelena:
    Oh, how I wish more people would feel this way…!

  24. Helen Karn
    Boise, ID
    August 6, 11:13 am

    A few years ago members of my family were in the Florida Everglades where we rode a tram to the highest point. We started to leave our purses in the tram but the driver told us to
    take them with us and to look at bicycles on the trail where several crows were busy unbuckling straps and taking out items discarding things they didn’t want. Very interesting to
    watch them. Helen Karn

  25. Helen Karn
    Boise, ID
    August 6, 11:10 am

    A few years ago members of my family were in the Florida Everglades riding a tram to the highest point where we needed to leave the tram and walk up a short hill. We started to leave our purses in the tram and the driver told us to look at the bicycles park on a trail. Several crows were unbuckling back packs and taking out things and discarding what they didn’t want to keep. Very interesting. Of course we took our purses with us. Helen Karn

  26. Glyn
    United Kingdom
    August 6, 10:51 am

    I have a friend who told me of a line of crows lined up on a ledge on the side of a rock face he was climbing. They would take it in turns taking a rock, climbing up into the air above them where they would then drop the rock and chase it down, spiralling around it and performing aerobatics on the way. The crows on the ledge would hop and sqwark as they watched.
    The performer would then return, with the rock of course, and pass it on to another crow who would take up the role of dare devil.
    Amazing creatures.

  27. shane c
    red deer ab canada
    August 1, 7:57 am

    A woman in central Alberta is making decoys of crows and passing them off as dead a dead crow in certain areas where the crows gather. They appear so life like that the crows flock together looking down at what appears to be one of their own. They seem to form a kind of funeral gather perched around the area above as if they are all paying their final respects to their fallen comrade. Strange thing is once they have done so, the leave that area never to return again according to the article. If this holds scientific proof and it seems to have worked this is truly a unique characteristic about this species of bird.

  28. Cam Wood
    Vancouver BC
    July 30, 12:45 am

    Cool, evolution and adaption at its finest… I bet when crows were dinosaurs.. they were badass.

  29. Valonka
    July 28, 12:14 pm

    The news that crows are intelligent creatures is “old” news to my family & me. We’d noticed this fact years ago when my Mother had first started feeding the crows which “visited” our balconies, looking for food & water. They even seemed to recognize each of us….behaving in a different and distinct manner with each of my family members.
    We observed their social behavior within their group on a daily basis and were surprised and delighted to note how much more “civilised” they were than many of us humans are! Unlike the pigeons which also frequented our home on a daily basis, the crows exhibited many “positive” characteristics such as caring for their “family members” and sharing food…even patiently “queuing” for food instead of fighting with each other for, or stealing, the food. They also had a good sense of timing…actually calling out to us on those days when we were a bit “late” with their “breakfast”.
    They exhibited a “sense of humor” too…actually flying off with one of the water containers one day…only to “bring” it back the next day! We never figured out how they knew which home the container was from but we did tie it down so they couldn’t pull that trick on us again.
    They gave us countless hours of happiness before we moved away for good, with many precious memories of these “wise birdbrains”.

  30. Jelena
    Montreal
    July 28, 7:31 am

    Science is great, but sometime ridiculous! Animal testing and comparisons of animal vs. human is like comparing a car & air plain and coming up to the conclusion that the car is inferior . All animals and all living beings posse the intelligence that will best serve and ensure their survival. We always forget about this wast ocean of universe and the abundant life in it. Comparison is just wrong&ignorant and leads us astray. Comparison and testing is no justice and way far away from the truth of the existence. Humans are immature and their scientists need a reality check accompanied with a change of values in their hearts and minds. Humans suffer from the inferiority complex due to the whole political&social hierarchy system that ranks , compares and orders people into different classes, while from the beginning humans are all the same. All same, same but different. Even if officially we conclude that there’s an animal with much higher intelligence then ours living among us, we would find and search for every possible way and reason to discard these attributes. We mirror this in our daily behaviors between each other in our society, we fight over who’s the most sexy diva, who’s the strongest man, who’s the most intelligent, who has money and why so we can compare why we don’t, etc… At the end it’s just the matter of a personal perception and opinion. If we could conclude the absolute truth about something, we wouldn’t have to vote ever again!
    I truly do not care if the crow is smarter then my child or me or any other human or animal living here. I only care for their quality of life and if the justice has been served. By the way, the crows are absolutely awesome ! ;)

  31. Linsey Magrath
    Philadelphia
    July 28, 7:14 am

    @lin, there was a great PBS show about crows – they come together to grieve the loss of other crows, and one crow was exposed to a man wearing a frightening mask;much time passed and that crow remembered the mask. You should google this. Also made simple tools, as mentioned above, to complete needed tasks. It was really interesting.

  32. SARANG D.KUDTARKAR
    KARWAR (Karnataka)
    July 28, 5:10 am

    i like this subject its very interesting some one think about crow .

  33. RH
    July 27, 3:43 pm

    Crows sit on the road to find food… See a car, “oh one of those things let’s get out of the way” hop hop hop hop to the side of the road. Watch your rear view mirror… hop hop hop hop back to where they where before. A pigeon, sits there looking stupid and only realizes the very last moment. Oh a car… often failing to do anything else then get run over.

  34. Lin
    July 27, 1:57 pm

    This test does not even stand up to scrutiny. Only ONE of the six birds used passed this test and also the test that the birds did compared to the one given to the children were different. Reason 3, the younger children would have found this difficult because they do not have to find their own resources. That’s what parents are for.

  35. Lin
    July 27, 1:51 pm

    I like the fact that crows are seemingly able to problem solve, however, are they really that intelligent? Aren’t they making life much harder for themselves? Why not go and find food and water that is easier to reach and uses up less energy? Not so smart after all then.

  36. Clea Carchia
    NJ
    July 27, 1:44 pm

    Check out this amazing video of a crow solving an 8 part puzzle!

    http://m.liveleak.com/view?i=bcd_1398680481

  37. Sami
    Tunisia
    July 27, 1:02 pm

    Really great
    God in the holly book also informed us and he said

    Then Allah sent a crow searching in the ground to show him how to hide the disgrace of his brother. He said, “O woe to me! Have I failed to be like this crow and hide the body of my brother?” And he became of the regretful.
    Link
    http://quran.com/5

    5:31

  38. chris
    vancouver
    July 27, 12:40 pm

    I ran my own study with a seagull that comes to my window for food. As I was feeding it I would play sounds of seagulls down at the ocean. He became very curious but help his position. Next played the sounds of eagles calling. He became very alert but still wanted that bread. I played the sound of seagulls mating and he took off like a bat out of hell. My conclusions is that fucking and the sound of fucking is much more important than food.

  39. carrie
    china
    July 27, 10:30 am

    the nature is amazing!

  40. Indian saying
    Mumbai
    July 27, 12:04 am

    In Indian there is saying
    Each stundent should have following Qualitiies
    1. Kag Cheshta : Inquisitiveness , urg to know everything
    2. Bakul dhayanam : Concentration like a Crane
    3. Kukur Nidra : sleep like a dog, should wakeup on a slight sound

  41. Celeste Bleeker
    JBER, AK
    July 25, 5:53 pm

    That is pretty neat. But it’s sad that they are smarter than some of today’s 4-5 yr. olds.

  42. Mister418
    Indiana
    July 25, 3:06 pm

    I BLAME the relationship between TECHNOLOGY and KIDS

  43. Claudia
    VA
    July 25, 11:08 am

    That is actually really interesting, but if they aren’t dumb, then how do they know not to fly near the road? At least the crows over here do….

  44. javier
    July 25, 4:35 am

    I have raised four magpies and I would never imagine how smart they are. Besides their sociabillity what it really impressed me is the fact that they can predict your behavior so they can built strategies to get something. Really amazing birds.

  45. Fr3d
    July 25, 1:26 am

    …and the kea?