By Science Daily
In Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher, a thirsty bird happens upon a vessel of water, but when he tries to drink from it, he finds the water level out of his reach. Not strong enough to knock over the pitcher, the bird drops pebbles into it — one at a time — until the water level rises enough for him to drink his fill.
Highlighting the value of ingenuity, the fable demonstrates that cognitive ability can often be more effective than brute force. It also characterizes crows as pretty resourceful problem solvers. New research conducted by UC Santa Barbara’s Corina Logan, with her collaborators at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, demonstrates the birds’ intellectual prowess may be more fact than fiction. Her findings appear today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
Logan is lead author of the paper, which examines causal cognition using a water displacement paradigm. “We showed that crows can discriminate between different volumes of water and that they can pass a modified test that so far only 7- to 10-year-old children have been able to complete successfully. We provide the strongest evidence so far that the birds attend to cause-and-effect relationships by choosing options that displace more water.”
Logan, a junior research fellow at UCSB’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, worked with New Caledonian crows in a set of small aviaries in New Caledonia run by the University of Auckland. “We caught the crows in the wild and brought them into the aviaries, where they habituated in about five days,” she said. Keeping families together, they housed the birds in separate areas of the aviaries for three to five months before releasing them back to the wild.
Getting individual crows into the testing room proved to be an immediate challenge. “You open the testing room door and then open the aviary door, with the idea that the bird you want is going to fly through into the testing room,” she said. But with four birds in an aviary, directing a particular test subject is tricky at best.
“So I thought, let’s pretend the sky’s the limit and I can train them to do whatever I want,” Logan said. “I started by pointing at the one I wanted and continuing to point until he or she flew out. I got to the point where I could stand outside the aviary and point at the one I wanted and it would fly out while the other birds stayed put.”
Two birds in particular — 007 and Kitty — became so well trained that Logan had only to call them by name and they’d fly into the testing room.
The testing room contained an apparatus consisting of two beakers of water, the same height, but one wide and the other narrow. The diameters of the lids were adjusted to be the same on each beaker. “The question is, can they distinguish between water volumes?” Logan said. “Do they understand that dropping a stone into a narrow tube will raise the water level more?” In a previous experiment by Sarah Jelbert and colleagues at the University of Auckland, the birds had not preferred the narrow tube. However, in that study, the crows were given 12 stones to drop in one or the other of the beakers, giving them enough to be successful with either one.
“When we gave them only four objects, they could succeed only in one tube — the narrower one, because the water level would never get high enough in the wider tube; they were dropping all or most of the objects into the functional tube and getting the food reward,” Logan explained. “It wasn’t just that they preferred this tube, they appeared to know it was more functional.”