Bernd Heinrich’s insights on raven intelligence.

17 01 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I recently completed Bernd Heinrich’s excellent book, “Mind of the raven: Investigations and adventures with wolf-birds” which, as the title suggests, concerns the well-known intelligence demonstrated by the common raven (Corvus corax). I’ll post a review in the near future, but for now please enjoy a few examples of this phenomenon recorded in this volume which I found most fascinating:

-Ravens have been associated with wolves for literally millenia…and indeed, they are frequently present around these pack-hunters. This relationship is fascinating because Heinrich demonstrates that ravens will often shy away from a new food item when left in their enclosure, yet when they see that this same dish is being consumed by wolves, they immediately fly towards it and begin to feast. Indeed, the two species seem to have a partnership of sorts…since ravens can’t open a carcass or kill a large game animal, they will actually seek out wolves and obtain their attention through various vocalizations, then lead them to the intended target…getting their share of the spoils afterwards. Heinrich reveals that in many areas where wolves are scarce (if not entirely absent) such as Maine and the far northern recesses of Canada, they’ll transfer this behavior from wolves to humans…leading hunters to their quarry.

-In some populated areas in Alaska where ravens are considered pests, poisoned carcasses will be laid out in order to bait and kill the birds. The animals have learned from each others’ mistakes and are wary of any carrion in these regions. However, according to an anecdote relayed to Heinrich, some ravens have been seen devouring non-toxic corpses, but when these birds spy another raven on the wing, they’ll actually roll on their backs and play dead until their airborne visitor leaves, thus they actually take advantage of the prejudices posessed by some of their fellow ravens and wield them to their advantage!

-In one of his experiments, Heinrich presented a raven with a pair of donuts, knowing that the corvid would want to carry away both, but couldn’t fit them in it’s beak. So in one test, the raven slid its beak through the hole of one donut and then grabbed the edge of the second before taking off. When a different bird was presented with this dilema, this individual grabbed one of the donuts and placed it vertically into the hole of the other before picking up the latter pastry and flying off with both!

I’d heartily reccomend this book to anyone interested in ornithology, corvids, or animal intelligence in general.

May the fossil record and the rest of the natural world continue to enchant us all!

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23 02 2009
WAVP 2009 Photos « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] for a few hours to rest. I spent a few hours trying to photograph a raven (having been inspired by Bernd Heinrich’s book), but it would appear that their reputation for heightened intelligence has been well-earned, as […]

15 04 2009
What conditions support the evolution of intelligence? « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] I covered ravens in an earlier post, I have a few additional thoughts on why they may have acquired their infamous brain-power. Ravens […]

31 12 2009
My 2009 Booklist « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] Thoughts: I’ve already highlighted a few excerpts from this deliciously intriguing volume here. This has got to be one of the most philosophically stimulating ‘hard science’ books […]

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