The world’s smartest bird?

February 9, 2014 • 2:03 pm

From HuffPo via reader Don, we have an amazing video of a crow solving a complex puzzle. We all knew that corvids were smart, but did you know that they were this smart?

Here are the HuffPo notes:

In this BBC special, Dr. Alex Taylor has set up an eight-step puzzle to try and stump one of the smartest crows he’s seen in captivity. They describe the puzzle as “one of the most complex tests of the animal mind ever.”

This isn’t the first time crows’ intelligence has been tested, either. Along with being problem solvers, these animals have an eerie tendency towards complex human-like memory skills. Through several different studies, we’ve learned that crows can recognize faces, communicate details of an event to each other and even avoid places they recognize as dangerous.

This bird, dubbed “007” for its crafty mind, flies into the caged puzzle and spends only seconds analyzing the puzzle before getting down to business. Despite the puzzle’s difficulty, the bird only seems to be stumped momentarily. At the end of the puzzle is a food reward, but how he gets there is what will really blow your mind.

NOTE: If the video doesn’t play, or you get a video that’s not about crow intelligence, watch it directly on the HuffPo page.

Now I don’t know how much the bird was trained beforehand, and whether it knew, for instance, that putting three stones in the lucite box would release a longer stick, but I doubt it. If the bird figured all that out de novo, it’s truly remarkable.  But since the bird apparently hadn’t had experience with both the stones and the small stick it used retrieve them, or with the stones and the box that released the large stick (the narrator says that the bird had experience only with single items of the 8-item puzzle), then it is a stunning demonstration of bird intelligence.

50 thoughts on “The world’s smartest bird?

  1. I would have preferred a stricter description of what the prior experiences were. The video leaves a bit of unneeded ambiguity there. Still, smart bird!

    1. I agree. The bit I wondered about was the three stone drop mechanism. Had it been previously trained to use that to release food, or did it know that a stick would come out? We did not really see it show a lot of interest in that box prior to the point that it started dropping stones in it, so it is not clear what it expected to come out. It might have been making the forward connection but it might have just been trying the next obvious thing (have previously encountered the device) to see what happened. Then, once a long stick was released, it capitalised on its success. Like you say, still smart either way!

    2. Based anecdotally on what I see researchers do with crows (shown in online videos), I would suggest that the crow has seen the various puzzles separately, and in various combinations. So each step is known by the crow, and they know to do things in a sequence. I would take him at this word that this crow has not seen this particular sequence before.

    3. Chris Packham later in this episode explains that it wasn’t about letting the crow puzzle out everything de novo, but rather to let it combine different experiences into a new sequence of actions that would lead to a reward. That apparently is something that for instance Itchy and Scratchy (his beloved d*gs) are not able to do.

      See also in this episode of the series the set-up with a jay, Itchy and Scratchy and a child (age 2,5 yrs). The jay solves the puzzle (and gets the reward) in no time at all. The d*gs get nowhere, the child gives up pretty quickly.

      Of course, corvids don’t build aeroplanes, but then again, why would they…

  2. From what I recall watching the show the bird had completed all the puzzles individually before but never all together.
    The premise of the show was that birds can learn skills and use them in a flexible manor.

    We were given the a possible reason of a birds brain to weight ratio much higher than average animals.

    I highly recommend watching the entire show it was jaw dropping from beginning to end.

    Other highlight included a puzzle where a crow vs a dog vs 2 year old human. Crow won.

    1. Yes I recall seeing this whole show too and I believe you are correct in the training. Amazing that the bird puts it all together. I think that is called transfer of learning. I remember my Latin teacher in high school was excited when we demonstrated such learning by applying our other studies to Latin (forget which). See, I’m as smart as the crow!

    2. Yes, from the minimal hesitation and lack of false starts, I assume the bird already knew:
      -A twig can be used to retrieve objects.
      -A long twig can retrieve objects that a short twig cannot.
      -Multiple stones will deliver a long twig.

      The fact that the bird could link all these behaviors together is quite cool, but I have seen other corvids solve some quite non-intuitive puzzles that would put this example to shame, such as tugging on the leftmost of a pair of strings in order to get a treat that appears to be hanging from the rightmost string. (The string were made to crisscross by use of invisible monofilament fishing line.)

      “We were given the a possible reason of a birds brain to weight ratio much higher than average animals.”

      I don’t see how a high brain to body mass ratio could cause high intelligence. Surely it must be a matter of total number of neurons cross factored with number of average neural connections. So a heavier brain (irrespective of body mass) would, in general, be better than a lighter brain, but a light, highly connected brain could be better than a heavy, poorly connected one.

      1. All else being equal, a larger body has more sensorimotor surface to monitor and control. It takes more brain mass to do that. So the relevant metric for intelligence is not absolute brain mass, but brain mass in excess of what’s needed for basic command-and-control of a body that size.

    3. Birds have hollow bones which makes their bodies weigh less than a mammal of equivalent size. Is that taken into account in measuring these ratios?

    1. Thanks for posting these. Both excellent, but #2 is pretty amazing all the way through.

      I’m not finding the next episode on YouTube, the one mentioned at the end of episode #2. Animals (elephants) that mourn the death of others of their species.

  3. Why didn’t the bird drop the first stone into the compartment to see what effect that action would have. Did it know beforehand that 3 stones were required?

  4. Impressive!

    Coincidentally, I briefly heard and saw a large corvid earlier this morning. I think it was a raven, but it was too far off to hope to get a decent ID….


    1. There are usually crows around my property.
      When I have leftover bread I will throw it on the lawn and yell out ‘birdie num num’ and once I’m gone they will arrive soon after to grab it.
      I love crows but my neighbour the vet doesn’t because he says they peck out the eyes of newborn calves.

  5. I watched the show as it went out, and I’m pretty sure at some point they said the birds hadn’t been trained.

  6. Dr. Taylor demonstrates how a crow retrieves a food treat from a wooden barred cage in three examples ~ the last one involving a rubber snake inside the cage HERE ~ Amusing

    Video description:-

    …New Caledonian crow responses to bowl, teddy and snake. This research was published in the journal Biology Letters in the paper: ‘Context-dependent tool use in New Caledonian crows’ by Alex H. Taylor, Gavin R. Hunt, and Russell D. Gray. The doi link for the article:-


    1. Sorry for the double post. My browser crashed the first time around and I thought the post didn’t go through.

  7. I’m not doubting the experiment, but it was a complete mistake to have the guy sitting right there. Humans can leak cues without knowing it, e.g., Clever Hans

    A crow reading body language is perhaps just as impressive, but there’s no need to fuck up the experiment like that.

  8. The New Caledonian Crow is a very intelligent bird (tool user), and watching it perform this feat seems incredible. Not to undermine the significance of this birds ability, but it is not as incredible as it appears at first blush. The question seems to be whether or not the crow had any prior training. I suggest with 99% certainty that the chain of behaviors observed were in fact learned individually, one specific behavior at a time (e.g., pulling rocks out of the cage).

    I have personally taught pigeons to read (no, not aloud). At least to the lay person that’s what it looked like. The crow is able to carry out a far more complex chain of behaviors than a pigeon, but individual behaviors had to be learned first. These birds have evolved some innate abilities that are exceptional, as is their capacity to learn. I would be most interested to find out how many individual behaviors were taught, and was the crow taught to chain individual behaviors in the correct sequence through shaping? Was it taught the sequence or did it learn through trial and error? . Did the crow emit any novel behaviors?

    In another video Dr. Taylor mentions it taking 150 trials for 3 of 6 crows to learn the solution to the “trap tube” which is a much simpler task. So how many trials did it take the crow to learn this? That is not offered but I suggest that it was also in the hundreds.
    Personally I find the Crow’s use of tools most fascinating.

      1. I think you mean ‘WOW!!!!!’.
        Blind luck?
        How could anyone come to that conclusion?
        They were all previously learned behaviors that the crow had to use in the correct sequence.
        It didn’t appear to be doing them randomly.
        It seemed to know which sequence would work, and it had never seen that required sequence before.
        How is that ‘blind luck’.

  9. It always makes me wonder, with this much intelligence what is the emotional intelligence of crows? They are pretty social birds…

  10. It seems to be more an interesting demonstration than a scientifically rigorous test, but all the same it was incredibly enjoyable just watching the crow at work. The best part was watching it gather the stones, apparently not sure what to do with them, and then switch to placing them in the plastic container.

  11. I liked how it picked up the short stick to retrieve a stone sitting on the table. Must’ve spaced there for a second.

  12. When I was growing up I too had a pet crow. My Uncle who has some farmland would climb up and take a baby crow or 2 from it’s nest. I know it sounds mean. However he would raise them as pets and gave our family a baby crow to raise as our own. It was an amazing animal as a pet. It was left to fly freely but always stuck around the house and neighborhood as it was it’s own territory. It would come when you called it and land on your arm. My mother would call it from the window and it would land on the sill as she fed it scraps of meat. It would sit atop the dogs back and eat and drink from the dogs dishes. It would bring shiny objects from who knows where and leave them on the back porch as gifts. It would attack young children that passed by through the alley as if it was protecting us. Kind of an image from the movie “The Birds”. I’ll never forget it. Unfortunately all the photos have been lost so I am left with fond memories of the most amazing pet bird I’ve ever had.

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