Four-Month-Old Ravens Can Be As Smart As Adult Apes, Cognitive Tests Shows

Photo of a raven sitting on a perch. Claudia Wascher

You really can’t call a raven a birdbrain, because they and other corvids (the avian family they belong to) are actually pretty smart. New research published in Scientific Reports suggests that, at just four months old, these birds can compete as well as adults chimpanzees and orangutans in certain cognitive tasks.

The work focused on eight hand-raised ravens. They were tested at the age of four, eight, 12, and 16 months using the Primate Cognition Test Battery (PCTB), a standardized test for assessing animal cognition. The researchers tested if the birds exhibited spatial memory, understood numbers and addition, and if they could learn from and communicate with their handlers. They even looked at object permanence, which is the ability to know that an object still exists even if it's out of sight.

The researchers found that the ravens' cognitive skills did not change during the test period, suggesting that they are already quite cognitively capable long before they become adults. At four months, ravens start to gain independence from their parents but it takes years for them to reach sexual maturity. 

The performances were not perfectly consistent among the eight birds but on average they did better in tasks which tested their grasp of additions and relative numbers compared to those testing spatial memory. With that in mind, they would likely struggle with the Three-Card Monte (but so would most humans).

The results from these birds were also compared to similar PCTB for 106 chimpanzees and 32 orangutans collected in a previous study. With the exception of spatial memory, ravens performed equally well as these adult apes.

“Our results suggest that ravens are not only social intellects but have also developed sophisticated cognitive skills for dealing with the physical world. Furthermore, their cognitive development was very rapid and their cognitive performance was on par with adult great apes’ cognitive performance across the same cognitive scales”

The team however clarified that while these particular birds perform as well as apes, the skillset can't yet be generalized to all ravens or any member of the corvid family. The team suggests that future studies should take into account how these birds develop, as well as combining data from cognitive tests which don't solely look at social interactions with humans or how these animals forage.

Despite the limitations, the findings remain intriguing and it's clear that under the right settings these birds can develop sophisticated cognitive skills. It's thought that the ravens have developed this enhanced ability due to living in an environment that changes rapidly, and their survival and reproductive success could very well hinge on their sophisticated communication and deep understanding of the world around them. 

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