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Bird-Brained And Proud

Bird-Brained And Proud

Our last common ancestors lived 300 million years ago, but corvids are at least as intelligent as human toddlers. Photo courtesy: John Brown.

Pranav Capila interviews animal cognition expert Dr. Auguste von Bayern, and comes away with a renewed respect for avian intelligence.

Nonhuman morality. Interspecies art. PETA and feminism. The politics of primates in Africa. The global ‘cowspiracy’ of cattle farming. Unusual ideas were brought to a boil in the biting New Delhi air earlier this year at the third Minding Animals Conference: a grand intersection of animal academia and activism hosted by the Wildlife Trust of India. A talk on ‘Feathered Apes’ seemed especially intriguing not just by its title (had Bigfoot been found and was it really a big bird?) but because the speaker, it was whispered to me, was the Princess of Bavaria.

The subject of that dazzling lecture was soon revealed to be the crow family, and the speaker, it transpired, was among the first generation of avian cognition scientists (and only incidentally from royalty). I spoke with Dr. Auguste von Bayern under the watchful gaze of some desi crows later that afternoon, to explore the nature and purpose of her research. Here are some excerpts:

Let’s start with why you do what you do. Why do you work with animals, and in particular birds? I read somewhere that you raised a flock of geese as a child, at your grandparents’ home?.

Yes, that’s right. I grew up in the countryside and spent much of my childhood outdoors, observing animals. I was allowed to have pets from a very early age and my grandparents showed me how to care for injured wild animals as well. So I took in and fed baby owls, mice, things like that.

One of my first ‘official’ pets was a baby duck and I went on to raise several ducks and geese. In fact for my final project in school, I followed in the footsteps of Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian professor of animal behaviour – I hand-raised five geese from the egg and described their behaviour throughout their development.

Now baby geese will bond with the first moving object they see after they are born, a phenomenon known as imprinting. So these geese were fully imprinted on me and had to go everywhere I went, including school! I even took them into the classroom for a week, after which we were all banished to the school gardens!

Your field deals with the comparative study, across species, of mental processes associated with intelligence: attention, memory, reasoning and computation, problem solving... Comparative cognition is a young field, and working with birds within it is even newer. What drew you to it?

Well, I originally wanted to go off to Africa and work more on the conservation side of things. Then I found out that a group was being formed at Cambridge to study the intelligence of corvids. (Commonly known as the crow family, corvids include carrion crows, jackdaws, ravens, magpies, choughs and jays.) I read about it and realised that it was a completely new field of study.

My own experience with ducks and geese had taught me that birds are more intelligent than is commonly believed. And since my grandparents had hand-raised several crows, I knew that they are particularly intelligent birds.

What has changed in our knowledge about the avian brain? Why should birds no longer be considered ‘bird-brains’?

Birds have small brains, which people traditionally associated with limited intelligence. However, a bird’s brain isn’t that small if you factor in the size of its body. A crow, for instance, has the same relative brain size as that of the great apes, our closest evolutionary relatives.

But even corrected for body size, brain size is just one proxy for intelligence – and it is a crude measure. If you want to be more precise, you could look at particular parts of the brain: in mammals you could consider the neocortex, the area associated with higher cognitive functions. The equivalent area in birds is the forebrain. If you look at the percentage of the neocortex or forebrain compared to the overall brain, you get a better proxy for intelligence.

So you find for instance that the neocortex is much bigger, much more expanded in the great apes than in other animals: much bigger than you would predict given their body size.  And the same is true of the forebrain in corvids!

A New Caledonian Crow using a stick tool to extract larvae from deadwood. Photo: Jolyon Troscianko.

What cognitive processes previously thought to be unique to humans (and other apes) have you, and others in your field, found in corvids?

Several. There has been an increasing accumulation of such studies in the last 15 years.

Let’s take, for example, what cognitive scientists refer to as ‘mental time travel’. This involves the ability to consciously recollect past episodes from our life – what we call ‘episodic memory’ – and use that information to anticipate, imagine and plan for future events.

Mental time travel was thought to be a uniquely human trait. It is a complex skill and we are not born with it; children develop a sense of the future at around the age of two and some planning ability only by the age of four or five.

Corvid species seem to exhibit this trait as well. Corvids are interesting to study because they store food, and as a result of this ‘food caching’ they have not only developed a good memory, but a very good episodic memory. Research on Western Scrub-jays by University of Cambridge professor Nicola Clayton, with whom I formerly worked, has shown that they can place themselves into a previously experienced situation again – like we do with our so-called episodic memory.

These birds remember exactly what food they have cached, where and when it was cached, and which other birds observed which specific caching event. These memories are then used flexibly, both to guide their recovery of the food caches and to protect their caches from being stolen by other birds.

Scrub-jays also seem to be able to imagine future scenarios and plan ahead. In carefully controlled experiments they are seen to store food in places where they have learned there will be no food available the following morning. They also cache a preferred type of food in places where they learn that type of food will not be available the next morning! (C. R. Raby, D. M. Alexis, A. Dickinson and N. S. Clayton (2007); Planning for the future by Western Scrub-jays.)

There are several other behaviours that we study under the umbrella term ‘complex cognition’. Tool use for instance.

A lot of your work at the University of Oxford’s Behavioural Ecology Research Group involves the study of crows that use tools. Why is this so important?

Because tool use was thought to be uniquely human until Jane Goodall discovered it in chimpanzees in 1960. It is still extremely rare in animals. And the majority of tool use that we do find is primitive: you have mainly chimpanzees, orangutans and New Caledonian Crows that manufacture complex tools.

Corvids typically pair-bond for life and spend hours preening or feeding each other affectionately. Photo: Auguste von Bayern.

I currently work with New Caledonian Crows, which use tools naturally in the wild. In fact they carry their tools along with them when they go out to forage. They obtain a significant proportion of their daily protein intake through this behaviour, so it is scientifically proven that it is highly adaptive for them to use tools. They use twigs, leaves and grass stems. to flush out larvae, insects and lizards.

They also manufacture one of the most complex tools of any animal, from serrated Pandanus leaves. And tool making is innately a more complex behaviour than tool use, because you have to be able to visualise, to create some sort of inner template of how the finished tool is going to look. You need an understanding of the physical properties of both the tool and its environment – it involves complex physical cognition and reasoning abilities.

The research group that I work with at Oxford, led by Professor Alex Kacelnik, has shown that New Caledonian Crows can spontaneously modify the shape of objects to create functional tools. For example in their natural environment they will create hooked tools, picking up a twig and clipping off all the branches that are not required, bending the twig to create a hook. But in experimental studies they will even bend a wire to create a hook if they are not provided with the right tool. (Weir, A.A.S., Chappell, J., & Kacelnik, A. (2002); Shaping of hooks in New Caledonian crows.)

We have recently done several fascinating follow-up studies to that one, where we give the crows different materials to work with, different shapes, and find that they can forge the tools they require for the problem at hand. Such flexibility and innovativeness are key elements of intelligence, and are thought to involve complex cognition processes such as causal reasoning, creativity and prospection.

Crows have been traditionally thought of as intelligent – Aesop’s fable on the crow putting pebbles in the pitcher of water comes to mind – but they are also rather misunderstood. In India the crow is the only bird officially classified as vermin. What’s your reaction to that?

One of the most fascinating, most clever species according to science is considered vermin – that’s sad. Contrary to what people think about them, crows are highly sociable. They pair-bond for life and spend hours in close proximity to their partner, just enjoying each other’s company. You can have a far closer relationship with a crow than you can with a dog – and they are far more intelligent than dogs!

Like humans they are extremely long lived, even up to a hundred years. This is an indicator of intelligence because they learn and gain experience over a long period of time, potentially becoming cleverer. And like us they are generalists: very flexible and adaptive, thriving in extremely diverse habitats around the world. That too is a strong indicator of intelligence.

I would encourage people to just observe crows. You know, I talk to a lot of people who tell me, “I saw a crow that put a nut on the rail tracks and waited for a train to come by to crack it.” Or that they saw a crow using a piece of bread to fish!

Crows are also very playful; they chase each other in fun, they play with objects... there are many interesting YouTube videos where one can see them surfing down rooftops, rolling in the snow and more.

If we can get people, and particularly children, to observe these things it will open their eyes to how wonderful and fascinating these birds are. They are not vermin!

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 6, June 2015.


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