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Ravens Can Imagine They're Being Spied On, Study Finds

Stay woke.

by Rachel Pick
Feb 3 2016, 6:10pm

Image: Lori Iverson/USFWS

Ravens could be the most woke birds on the planet, based on new research that suggests they're capable of imagining they're being spied on.

A new study conducted by a team at the University of Vienna finds that ravens can consider what might be motivating another individual. While the jury is still out on whether the birds get paranoid, this implies that the ravens have a theory of mind, and a much higher degree of intelligence than we commonly assign to birds.

Ravens have long been observed taking extra care to hide food caches when another raven is present, but as the study itself notes, this behavior could have been attributed to visual cues displayed by the observing raven. So this recent study, led by Thomas Bugnyar, sought to eliminate that possibility.

In the experiment, two rooms were divided by a wall containing both a window and a peephole. One raven was present in each room. When the window was covered, ravens took the usual amount of time hiding their food. When the window was uncovered, the ravens were faster at hiding their food and avoided returning to the area where it was hidden—in line with previously observed behavior.

Then, the ravens were taught to look through the peephole when the window was covered, to watch where researchers hid food in the adjacent room. This was done to convey to them that they themselves could be watched through the peephole by an unseen agent. Then, with the window covered and the peephole open, the team played sounds from a speaker in the other room to make it sound like a raven was in there.

The test subjects behaved the same as they had when the window was open, stashing food almost twice as fast—8 seconds as opposed to 14. This suggests that the ravens could theorize that they were being watched, even though they couldn't see for sure whether another raven was observing them.

This implies an (admittedly basic) theory of mind: as the experiment's abstract sums up, they have "the ability to attribute mental states, like seeing, to others." Theory of mind is generally defined as exactly that—assigning thoughts and emotions to others and recognizing that there is such a thing as a "mind." It's regarded by scientific and philosophical communities as a general sign of intelligence.

To people who've spent time studying corvids, this won't be surprising news. I wrote about the intelligence of ravens and other corvids (such as crows) back in July, speaking to Cornell researcher Kevin McGowan. After spending years with the birds near Cornell's Lab of Ornithology (and handing them peanuts, a favorite snack), McGowan says local crows recognize not only his face but also his gait, being able to spot him from behind.

They've also memorized his car. Once they spot McGowan in the parking lot, he says "they actually will anticipate where I'm going and go sit by my car." McGowan was already convinced the birds possessed a theory of mind, saying "they remember what I've done before, and they predict what I'm going to do in the future."

Generally, humans assign intelligence to animals based on how alike they are to us. So traditionally, all the "smart" animals have been mammals: apes, monkeys, dolphins, even pigs. But these hall-of-famers might need to move aside for an egg-laying competitor.