Are Crows Really Smarter Than 7-Year Old Kids?
Boosters & Scoffers, Believers & Skeptics
A new study claims that New Caledonian crows have the ability to understand cause and effect at the same level as, or possibly higher than, second-graders. (“Using the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm to Investigate Causal Understanding of Water Displacement by New Caledonian Crows,” Plos One, 3/26/14.)
First, a little background. New Caledonia is an archipelago located in the Coral Sea, west of Australia. The crows inhabiting the islands are one of the current “it” species in cognitive science research (along with dogs and chimps) because of their ability to use tools (among other things). Like all crows, they’re members of the corvid family, which includes rooks, jays, magpies, and ravens, all very “intelligent” birds. [1,2,3,4,5,6,7]
From the abstract: “Understanding causal regularities in the world is a key feature of human cognition ... Our results indicate that New Caledonian crows possess a sophisticated, but incomplete, understanding of the causal properties of [water] displacement, rivaling that of 5–7 year old children.”
Is this true?
That’s hard to say. First, only six crows were tested and only four took part in all six tests. Two of the crows were apparently “not motivated,” but we’re never told what this means, nor given any information about their body language. (Yes, crows exhibit body language!) Were they cautious, wary, skittish, distracted, withdrawn, bored, angry? We’re not told. The researchers go directly from instinct to intellect, skipping over the most important aspect of learning and behavior—emotion.
Why is this information lacking? The researchers have no problem telling us what they believe these birds are thinking. Why is no attention given to how they’re feeling, especially since crows are very emotional and wildly uninhibited about expressing their feelings?
In Rational Animals? (2006, Matthew Nudds & Susan Hurley, eds.), comparative psychologists Michael Tomasello and Josep Call distinguish between two types of cognitive scientists: boosters and scoffers. “Boosters interpret behavior in psychologically rich ways; scoffers prefer psychologically lean interpretations. The ultimate boosters think there are no significant differences between human and nonhuman cognition.”
I would describe these as two types as believers and skeptics. And I’ve found that whenever researchers start comparing the cognitive abilities of animals to those of young children they’re probably “believers,” meaning they operate under the “differences-of-degree-not-kind” fallacy, based on a selective interpretation of Darwin. 
Another important thing to note is that several scientific “skeptics”—most notably Derek Penn, Keith Holyoak, and Daniel Povinell—have shown that many behaviors of crows and other corvids can be explained through simpler models. 
Comparing Apples and Pre-Packaged Frozen Apple Pie
Of course I’m a dog trainer, not a scientist. But if New Caledonian crows show higher cognitive abilities than other crows, or even other corvids, the first line of inquiry should be to find out what those differences are; focusing on supposed differences between crows and children should not even be on the table until you’ve a) carefully examined how emotion, rather than intellect, might explain their behaviors, and b) compared the foraging techniques, habitats and genetics, etc., of New Caledonian crows with other, perhaps more ordinary crows.
That said, these crows are amazing. They can use sticks and even bend wires with their beaks to poke into holes and get at food. Some of the crows studied were able to displace water in a tube by dropping stones until the water level rose, enabling them to reach a “reward.” 
But since we’re discussing comparative cognition, what can 7-year olds do that crows can’t, and in fact, could never do?
A lot. They can use pencils and crayons to write and draw pictures, they can use pencil sharpeners, tie their shoes, dress themselves, brush their teeth, put on their jammies, talk to one another and their parents, siblings, teachers, and anyone they meet, on a wide variety of topics, go trick-or-treating, sing “Happy Birthday.” They can do simple arithmetic, read and write, take piano lessons, go to karate class, play sports and learn the basic rules of fair play. They can operate doorknobs, car door handles, refrigerator doors, microwave ovens, they can make simple meals like breakfast cereal or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They can ride scooters, talk and text on smart phones, operate DVRs and do their schoolwork on computers (the first word some babies learn nowadays is “tablet”). Plus they can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
So while tool use in animals is amazing, there’s a gigantic difference between that and human technology. Our “tools” are not only pervasive (deeply embedded into everything we do) they’re also recursive: meaning they generate endless variations of themselves.11 Think of the difference between the simple design of the Wright Brothers’ first airplane compared to modern passenger jets, military aircraft, satellites, moon rockets, space shuttles, drones, and so on. Each bit of technology spawns another, generally improving the performance of each iteration, also introducing newer and newer forms of technology into the marketplace. In fact air travel has changed nearly every aspect of human life—culture, religion, politics, commerce, agriculture, journalism, medicine, the arts, law enforcement, warfare—and has even re-shaped the landscape of the Earth, the Moon and Mars. And it all started with a very simple design.
So comparing our cognitive abilities and technology to those found in crows isn’t like comparing apples and oranges, it’s like comparing apples and pre-packaged, frozen apple pie. But this is what boosters do: they exaggerate similarities and downplay differences.
Angry Birds, Darwin & Freud
I should point out that Darwin was of two minds about the differences between human and animal consciousness. On the one hand, he felt strongly that they were differences of degree, not kind, as the believers believe. However, he also said that if turned out there were differences of kind, the dividing line would be human language, which has turned out to be the case.
Darwin also wrote extensively about similarities in the expressions of emotions in humans and animals, one area where we really are similar, an area that’s too often ignored by comparative psychologists.
Darwin’s ideas were a major influence on a Viennese physician named Sigmund Freud, who began his career as a neurologist. But once he turned his interest away from neurons and synapses to the human psyche, he proposed a simple template for human psychology, one that can also be applied to animals. Freud said that strong drives and emotions can be likened to the flow of water in a hydraulic system. When the water is dammed up, it puts pressure on the psyche, causing the person or animal to act in order to try to relieve that pressure.
One way that both humans and animals have of reducing this pressure is to project emotional energy onto objects of attraction, a process Freud called cathexis. (I first learned of this concept from Kevin Behan’s book Natural Dog Training; although Behan doesn’t use the term cathexis, he does write extensively about how feelings of attraction and resistance are the bedrock of animal consciousness.)
In a State of Flow
With that in mind, there are two foraging behaviors in New Caledonian crows that may be important in understanding why some of them were able to “pass” 4 of the 6 tests set for them by researchers. The first is that they routinely grasp candle nuts in their beaks, then drop them onto rocks from a high enough position so that the outer shell breaks. (The researchers mention this ability, and say it may have pre-disposed the birds to drop pebbles into the water used for some of the tests.) The second behavior is that they’re able to chase and catch flying insects in mid-flight. That’s an amazing ability, one that would clearly be hampered by linear, rational thinking.
This is reminiscent of how some athletes talk about “being in the flow,” where a batter or wide receiver will be totally tuned-in to the trajectory of the baseball or football. It’s also reminiscent of the way Frisbee dogs launch themselves in the air to intersect their targets. Dogs and crows, and human athletes, all do these amazing things by projecting their emotions onto an object of attraction, enabling them to precisely follow the object’s trajectory no matter what.
Now I know it may seem like a stretch to compare crows with canines, let alone human athletes. But since we’re already comparing crows and 7-year old children, it might be interesting to take a quick look at some of the similarities humans, dogs, and by extension, wolves, share with crows. For one thing, crows are highly social animals. And while they don’t hunt large, dangerous prey, as wolves and humans do, they are social foragers. So they do work together at times. Plus they sometimes gang up on and harass much bigger and more dangerous birds like hawks and eagles. And if they’re in the right mood, they’ll even dive bomb dogs, humans, and cars.
(And just as a side note, both dogs and crows enjoy snowboarding!)
This brings us to tool use in dogs.
Spontaneous Tool Use in Dogs?
About 20 years ago a friend called to tell me that his Doberman mix, Senator, had exhibited spontaneous “tool use” at the dog run. A hole had been dug, over time, in one corner of the run, until it was about 2 feet deep. Senator had been chasing a tennis ball that rolled into the hole. He tried to dig it out but couldn’t reach it with his paws, which only increased his frustration.
Some other dogs came over and Senator, who had social anxiety issues, grabbed a Frisbee lying nearby. The other dogs saw the tennis ball, and they too tried to extricate it by digging at it, again with no success. Then Senator, with the Frisbee clamped between his jaws, came over to the hole again, and tried to use the Frisbee to pull the tennis ball out of the hole. He gave it several tries but eventually gave up.
“That’s an example of tool use, right?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s cool, but I don’t think it counts. I think it has to be repeated, otherwise it’s just a random event.”
My friend thought Senator’s behavior might have been the result of a linear rational thought process, but I looked at it from a simpler perspective. First, Senator’s anxiety created a feeling of wanting to bite the other dogs. Part of him was reluctant to do that, so he picked up the Frisbee and bit it instead. This is called emotional displacement (another Freudian concept). It didn’t diminish his desire for the tennis ball, though. So now, instead of having one emotion directing him toward one goal, he had two emotions, both actively involved in motivating his behavior. He didn’t want to let go of the Frisbee because it was acting as a “pacifier,” yet he still wanted that tennis ball. So he used the Frisbee to form a connection between his teeth and the ball. And that, I think, is the genesis of this one-time example of spontaneous tool use in canis familiaris: Senator projected his emotions onto the tennis ball, while he was displacing his aggression onto the Frisbee.
Causal Reasoning or Emotional Displacement?
Meanwhile, the crows in the recent study were a) taken from their homes in the wild and put into an unnatural environment (a human-built aviary), b) they were taught how to operate the mechanisms involved, c) were experts at how to grab stone-like objects (candlenuts) in their beaks and drop them, and d) like all avian and mammalian predators, they were able to project their emotions onto objects of attraction in a behaviorally-sophisticated yet non-rational way.
Since the crows had been displaced, they were likely experiencing a certain amount of stress and anxiety. We don’t know if they were, but they had been taken from their natural habitat and forced to participate in the various tests designed to determine their intelligence. So part of their motivation to plunk stones into the tubes may have been purely emotional, similar to Senator’s emotional displacement.
Still, to my way of thinking, the main ingredient has to be their prey drive, which is an elaboration of a simpler drive that exists in all animals, plants, on down to single-celled organisms, even molecules and atoms. Sigmund Freud saw this as a pristine, undifferentiated form of Eros, a kind of pre-sexual, sexual energy.
I know that describing this primal force in Freudian terms, is going to create problems for some people, but I think it’s important to consider this idea, at least for the moment, because nothing in nature can survive without making connections. Predators connect with prey. Prey connect with plants. Plants connect with sunlight and soil. Sperm connect with ova, continuing on down to the smallest organisms on earth. That’s biochemistry, that’s the dance of life.
So whatever mechanism caused the New Caledonian crows to drop stones in a tube to raise the water level, it’s more likely related to an ability to feel a strong attraction to “prey” (morsels of meat), and to project their emotions onto that “prey” than a carefully thought-out, rational process.
That said, I can see why some researchers would find it hard to think along those lines because hunting behaviors are instinctive, and the kind of behavioral flexibility observed in these and other corvids goes beyond instinct. But drives are not instincts. Instincts are inflexible while drives are highly adaptable. In fact, the drive to connect may be one the main “drivers” of adaptation and evolution.
So to my way of thinking, it’s not a thought that causes the crows to bend wires and drop stones to create water displacement. It’s a combination of desire, along with the capacity for projecting emotional energy onto objects of attraction, with an added potential for emotional displacement.
But then what do I know? I train dogs for a living.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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1) “Mirror-induced behavior in the magpie. (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition,” (Prior et al, August 19, 2008.)
2) The “claim that mark-directed behavior is evidence for mirror-self-recognition has been called into question. The fact that some children after witnessing a mark on their mother’s nose touch their own nose indicates that the passing of the mirror test might be a false positive (Mitchell, 1993, p. 304). The fact that children of some cultures are reported not to pass the mark test even up to the age of 6–7 years, suggests that the failing of the mark test might also be a false negative.” (Rochat & Zahavi, Consciousness and Cognition, # 20, pps. 204-213, 2011.)
4) Scrub jay behavior & stress.
5) (“New Caledonian crows attend to multiple functional properties of complex tools,” James J. H. St Clair and Christian Rutz, Royal Society Publishing, 10/7/2013.)
6) “Recent mirror studies with two corvid species have reported contrasting findings. Jungle crows, Corvus macrorhynchos, showed no self-contingent behaviour when confronted with mirrors, whereas Eurasian magpies, Pica pica, reportedly passed the ‘mark’ test for self-recognition. We investigated mirror-induced behaviour in wild-caught New Caledonian crows, Corvus moneduloides. We first documented the response of 10 naïve crows to a 50 × 40 cm vertical mirror. The crows responded to their mirror image with social displays and engaged in search and mirror-directed exploratory behaviour. Their agonistic social displays towards the mirror did not decrease in frequency over time. We then gave two of these crows and two naïve ones a mirror-mediated spatial location task with a horizontal mirror. All four crows successfully used the horizontal mirror to locate hidden food. Therefore, they were able to exploit the correlation between an object’s mirror reflection and its location in the real world. This suggests that New Caledonian crows may also have the ability to develop an understanding of how mirrors represent objects in the environment, despite the lack of self-directed behaviour in front of mirrors. Our study fills an important gap in mirror studies on corvids, which are considered to be the primate equivalents of the avian world.” (“New Caledonian crows’ responses to mirrors,” Animal Behaviour, November 2011, Pages 981–993.)
7.) New Caledonian crow, “Betty,” fashions a hook out of wire to reach food.
8.) Charles Darwin: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals. They are also capable of some inherited improvement, as we see in the domesticated dog compared with the wolf or jackal. If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction, etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly-advanced faculties; and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly-developed language.” (The Descent of Man, 1871.)
9.) “We are not claiming (cf. Emery & Clayton, in press; Tomasello et al. 2003b) that corvids – or other nonhuman animals – are limited to reasoning about concrete, occurrent [observable vs. potential or hypothetical] cues in the immediate environment. To the contrary, we believe it is obvious that nonhuman animals are perfectly capable of keeping track of past events, as well as forming general abstractions about observed behavioral regularities, and that they can use these multifarious representations in a flexible and adaptive fashion (see again Penn & Povinelli 2007b; Povinelli & Vonk 2004). Our claim is simply that nonhuman animals’ representations do not extend to higher-order relations involving mental states.” (Darwin’s Mistake, Penn, Holyoak & Povinelli, 2008.)
10.) The concept of “rewards” is outdated, though it’s still widely used. In his paper “Dopamine and Reward: Comment on Hernandez et al. (2006),” Randy Gallistel of Rutgers writes, “In the monkey, dopamine neurons do not fire in response to an expected reward, only in response to an unexpected or uncertain one, and, most distressingly of all, to the omission of an expected one.” [Italics mine.] In another article, “Deconstructing the Law of Effect,” Gallistel poses the problem of learning from an information theory perspective, contrasting Edward Thorndike’s model, which operates as a feedback system based on “rewards,” and a feedforward model based on Claude Shannon’s information theory.
It’s also well-known that shaping animal behavior via operant a certain amount of time and repetition (as well as changing the “pattern of reward”). But in the feedforward model learning can take place instantly, in real time, making it a more viable form of learning for animals in nature. This means that what some scientists call “reward pathways” should probably be called attentional, or mnemonic pathways, since dopamine’s purpose seems to be to make us remember salient environmental patterns, both positive—“I want to do that again!”—and negative—“I hope I never that experience again!”
11.) “Stuart Kauffman has noted that the invention of the internal combustion engine led to the invention of the automobile, which led to the invention of inflatable rubber ties, windshield wipers, asphalt paving, roadside motels, fast food, toll booths, and drive-through wedding chapels in Las Vegas. Each invention opens up new niches for future inventions, and components from one invention are often recycled into new forms. … some inventions, such as the automobile, set off major avalanches, and some set off only small avalanches (the size of which Kauffman believes follows a power law).” (The Origin of Wealth, Eric Beinhocker, 246-247.)
12) In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1924), Freud writes, “Even though it is certain that sexuality and the distinction between the sexes did not exist when life began, the possibility remains that the instincts which were later to be described as sexual may have been in operation from the very first.” (The Freud Reader, 615, 618.)