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Nov 02 2013

It vanished

Chris Clarke wrote a wonderful little bit of ethological observation as a Facebook status.

Today I watched a raven with a Cheeto being carefully stalked by two California gulls looking for a way to snatch the treat away. The raven hid the Cheeto under a leaf as the gulls watched. The gulls seemingly concluded that the Cheeto was gone and wandered off.

As people pointed out in comments, this neatly shows that gulls don’t have object permanence while ravens do have theory of mind.

(I look forward to an avalanche of Cheeto ads in my future…)

14 comments

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  1. 1
    MissEla

    Yeah, you don’t want to mess with a crow or raven–they’re smart. I was sitting in a parking lot before work one day, watching the birds eat the trash in the lot. A crow had found a tasty treat, and a seagull tried to take it away from him. The crow let the seagull take the food, walked a wide circle around to the backside the seagull, and *yanked* on his tail. The seagull squawked and took off, leaving the food behind. The crow happily went back to its meal. :P

  2. 2
    Pierce R. Butler

    Many years ago, I read an account in Coevolution Quarterly (or another of the Whole Earth Catalog print spawn) about Midwest farmers having given up on scarecrows and their high-tech like and resorting to shooting them.

    Soon, the crows figured out to stay away from every field with a human in it, so the farmers built blinds to camouflage their presence. The crows learned to observe whether a human had entered that blind, and dodged the danger accordingly.

    They also worked out quickly that a field was unsafe if two humans had walked out to the blind but only one walked back. Nor did it take long for the birds to deduce that three humans in, two humans out, meant a sniper.

    IIRC, the farmers finally had to march out with at least six accompanying the gunner before the crows could no longer do the necessary math as to whether one had remained in the blind.

  3. 3
    quixote

    :D Yes, indeed. There are some hunters at the very edge of my extended family, and I remember one talking about a duck hunting group who took on some crows as a challenge. The crows did that whole very accurate tally of how many were in the blind despite very complicated adds & subtracts to confuse them. The hunters never did get a crow. There were four hunters, so I guess not enough!

  4. 4
    Omar Puhleez

    You too can have a Cheeto ad.
    ;-)
    But birds are much more intelligent than they are often given credit for. To call someone ‘Birdbrain’ is give them abuse the world over.

    But birds are desended (like us) from four-footed dinosaurs. Except that for them to become birds, their front legs had to transform irreversibly into wings. Though some birds have moved into niches where ability to fly is a disadvantage (eg emu, penguin, kiwi) there has clearly been in practice no evolutionary way back from the feathered wing to the reptilian forearm with a grasping ‘hand’ at the end of it. So only one way lay open. The neck had to become a substitute arm, and the head with its beak had to become a substitute hand. The bird is thus an analogue of a one-armed mammal with its brain embedded in its hand.

    Both flightless and flight-capable birds have had to keep their brains as light as possible. Recnt anatomical studies have shown the bird’s brain to be significantly different structurally from the mammalian brain, so he equation of lighter brain with less intelligence no longer works so well.

    Still, some birds (eg parrots) are more intelligent than others (eg domestic chickens).

  5. 5
    Allan Frost

    Omar Puhleez:

    But birds are desended (like us) from four-footed dinosaurs.

    Thank you. The parenthetical “like us” makes me smile so much. For some reason I’m now picturing you as Big Bird, in a lab coat, typing at the keyboard.

  6. 6
    Omar Puhleez

    Big Bird does not look much like me at all. Too long in the beak.

    I’m more like a scrub turkey. And if I scratched around a bit, I’m sure I could find my old lab coat.

    ;-)

  7. 7
    Claire Ramsey

    My father and a group of crows had an ongoing battle for years. . . they would gather in a tree in front of the house and begin squawking and calling as soon as it got light. In summer that was early. My dad would try all kinds of things to scare them off. Of course, they didn’t give a hoot – waving a pair of pants out the window. Crows laughed. All kinds of noise in their direction . . . crows said hahahahaha. The solution to the crow issue was to move.

    I really like crows and ravens.

  8. 8
    MissEla

    Another fun crow story: My mother was out washing the car one day when a crow landed on the railing near her and started squawking. After a couple of minutes, she became annoyed and turned the hose on the crow… which is what it wanted in the first place. For the next week or so, this crow would park itself outside my parents’ bedroom window, cawing loudly, each morning until Mom would get up and turn the hose on so it could have a shower.

  9. 9
    Francisco Bacopa

    The interesting thing is that a raven would never choose so bad a hiding place if another raven was watching, They know gulls are stupider than they are.

    Now that winter is coming I plan on watching lots of interactions between migrant cormorants and gulls and year-round muscovy ducks and mallards. The mallard-domestic hybrids lose a few babies to the Canadian immigrant cormorants, but the muscovies are too smart for that. They form a picket line and then corner the cormorants away from their winter babies.

  10. 10
    Stacy

    But birds are desended (like us) from four-footed dinosaurs

    I am not a biologist, and am happy to be corrected, but–

    We mammals are not descended from dinosaurs. We’re descended from–*googles*–therapsids.

    (Birds are descended–more accurately, birds are–dinosaurs.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinosaur#Definition

  11. 11
    Stacy

    ^Please add “if I’m wrong about this” after “happy to be corrected.

  12. 12
    Ian MacDougall

    Stacy: My understanding is that we are descended from ‘mammal-like dinosaurs’. But taxonomy is a shifting field. I am happy to be corrected.

  13. 13
    Iain Walker

    Stacy is entirely correct – the theropsids (or synapsids) which which include mammals, and the sauropsids (which include dinosaurs, modern reptiles and birds) diverged in the Carboniferous, long before dinosaurs evolved. Consequently, we are not descended from dinosaurs.

  14. 14
    Omar Puhleez

    Iain: Thank you and Stacy for that information.

    I stand corrected. Though there was a considerable size rang among dinosaurs, the mammal-like reptiles were not dinosaurs.

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