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Ravens: Smarter than you think

Authors and biologists John and Colleen Marzluff to discuss books on corvid intelligence

Posted: April 16, 2014 - 11:01pm
  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

In many Tlingit stories about Raven, we are invited to view these creatures not just as birds, but as emissaries of a natural world we don’t fully understand, who can tell us something about ourselves and how to live, and about our relationship with other creatures.

A recent book by John Marzluff and Tony Angell, “Gifts of the Crow,” offers readers a similar invitation, presented in a very different way. Marzluff, a wildlife biologist who specializes in corvids (crows, ravens, jays), and Angell, a naturalist and artist, combine scientific information about the raven’s brain with scores of anecdotes and observations about raven behavior, linking the two with speculation about how that behavior could be explained scientifically.

The result is a book that offers intriguing evidence to support the idea that ravens are not only incredibly smart, but also creative, insightful and more similar to us than we may realize.

“Corvids assume characteristics that were once ascribed only to humans, including self-recognition, insight, revenge, tool use, mental time travel, deceit, murder, language, play, calculated risk taking, social learning and traditions,” Marzluff and Angell write. “We are different, but by degree.”

Marzluff will present a talk based on his research and writing at this week’s Sound and Motion presentation at the Egan Library on Friday. He’ll also give a talk tonight, hosted by the Audubon Society in the Juneau Douglas High School commons, that centers on a previous book, cowritten with his wife, wildlife biologist Colleen Marzluff, called “Dog Days, Raven Nights.” Both talks are free and open to the public.

The Sound and Motion talk was coordinated by the One Campus One Book committee at UAS. Librarian Jonas Lamb, who heads the committee at UAS, said Marzluff’s book connects with the theme of this year’s One Campus One Book selection, “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” by Kij Johnson. Both explore the stories of human-animal connection.

“When Kij Johnson spoke on campus, she talked about how we have the tendency to place human characteristics and abilities upon animals, we humanize them as if they required being raised up to our level in some way, as if to suggest they aren’t as intelligent or emotionally capable as man,” Lamb said in an email. “While her book was fiction, we sought out the work of John Marzluff, whose work we felt offered a compelling continuation of this discussion though an exploration of brain biology, social ecology and learning, which leads us to an increasing ability to understand how animals think and feel.”

Marzluff said the fact that ravens have gravitated toward human interaction has allowed for a kind of “cultural coevolution” that has had an effect on both sides. This idea is further explored in another book he coauthored with Angell, “In the Company of Crows and Ravens.”

“For whatever reason they always seem to glom on to us and live close with us,” Marzluff said. “They’re not very shy animals in most places, at least some of the species aren’t. So they’re there to interact with people, they’re very visible, they’re very vocal. They motivate people from that standpoint, I think. And of course, what we do motivates the birds.”

Ravens are much smarter than other birds, Marzluff said, capable of higher brain functioning similar to that of a small monkey.

“They have exceptionally large brains and because of that they can make a lot of associations between our actions and the consequences of those actions for the bird, whether it’s good or bad,” Marzluff said. “They remember those things just like we do, and adjust their behavior to either stay away from bad things or take advantage of good things.”

In addition to being smart and adaptable, the stories in “Gifts of the Crow” show a creature that knows the meaning of fun. In one story, ravens were observed surfing gusts of wind with thin strips of bark clutched in their talons. In another, they went sledding down snow-covered rooftops on their backs. A third tale describes how they playfully (or maliciously) pulled the feathers of a turkey’s tail.

In one of the most remarkable anecdotes presented in “Gifts of the Crow,” a man who has regularly fed crows on a tray in his yard for a long time receives a gift in return — a candy heart.

This unbelievable story is backed by numerous other examples of crows and ravens giving humans gifts, usually things that are of the human world such as pieces of glass, a paper clip or metal key, and usually to humans who have shown them kindness. Marzluff said when he first heard the candy heart story he was sure the observer was imagining things, but after he interviewed him and heard similar stories over time, he began to consider how there could be truth to it.

“As it turns out it’s probably likely that is indeed what happened,” he said. “There have been experiments under controlled situations that show that crows and ravens can exchange one thing to get another. .... They’re very attentive to the currency that’s out there.”

It is also true, Marzluff and Angell wrote, that an observer’s own ideas about what is possible affects what they see: “(O)ur own emotions, experience and expectation influence how we perceive and remember our world.” For this reason, the researchers have focused on repeated behaviors and patterns, rather than one-time events.

In some cases there is visible proof of these creatures’ amazing abilities. A video that Marzluff might show to the UAS audience Friday shows how a New Caledonian crow faced with an unreachable reward was quick to devise a method to get it: the crow bent a piece of wire into a hook. Instances of tool making are presented in the book as well, as are makeshift swords that ravens have used to fight or bother enemies.

The scientific explanation for this: “Rapid associative learning shapes simple actions into complex behavioral sequences, and insight allows plans to be crafted from memory, appraised and mentally carried out.”

In other words: they’re smart and extremely adaptable. Who knows how much of this intelligence has been gathered from watching the humans with whom they share the world. But we would be wise, the authors state, to flip the tables and learn from the ravens.

“This body of curious and intelligent beings has given us an invitation to develop a fresh relationship with nature, one that is no longer ‘multiply and subdue’ but rather ‘contemplate and learn’.”

On Thursday, Marzluff will discuss a different book, “Dog Days Raven Nights,” illustrated by Ketchikan’s Evon Zerbetz, and written with his wife, Colleen. The book tracks the Marzluffs’ three-year research project, led by biologist Bernd Heinrich, in the woods of western Maine. Then newly married, the Marzluffs constructed a huge aviary, studying hundreds of ravens at once, observing in particular how the birds share food and alert other birds to its presence. The Marzluffs take turns narrating their experiences in the book, interweaving their findings with descriptions of daily life in Maine

Colleen Marzluff said she had been studying squirrels prior to this project but became fascinated by her husband’s research. Also, she said, ravens are so common, no one else appeared to be interested.

“A lot of people, particularly in our era of graduate work, they were going far abroad to these exotic locations to study these bizarre things .... I think it’s way more interesting to study something that’s right in front of your face.”


John Marzluff’s presentation on “Gifts of the Crow” begins at 7 p.m. Friday at the Egan Library at UAS. On Thursday, both Marzluffs will talk about their book “Dog Days, Raven Nights” at the JDHS Commons from 7-9 p.m.

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James Coleman
James Coleman 04/17/14 - 01:02 pm
Cool birds

I love watching Ravens. You can actually see them thinking and reasoning. I especially enjoy watching them raid the food out of the back of pickups at Walmart whose owners don't know about these crafty critters.

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