Ravens might possess a Theory of Mind, say scientists

Feb 5, 2016

Photo credit: Jana Mueller

By Molly Jackson

From ancient Greek mythology to Native American folklore, ravens tend to have the same role: the clever tricksters you don’t want to cross. Corvus corax and its relatives were even spies for Apollo, which didn’t end well for his unfaithful lover Coronis, and served as the eyes and ears of Norse god Odin.

Ravens do spy on each other, it turns out, and they can infer when other birds are snooping on them. New findings, released Tuesday in a study in Nature Communications, highlight just how sophisticated – and human-like – ravens’ cognitive abilities are.

“What really is the feature that’s unique and special about human cognition?” asks co-author Cameron Buckner, a philosopher at the University of Houston.

Something helped propel us to learn language, built political institutions, develop arts and culture. Many biologists and philosophers think it’s our ability to see things through another person’s eyes, and to think about what they might be thinking, skills referred to as “Theory of Mind.”

But ravens do have basic Theory of Mind, the authors suggest, after cracking one of the biggest puzzles in animal cognition debates: without speech, how can we tell what a bird is thinking?

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34 comments on “Ravens might possess a Theory of Mind, say scientists

  • …remember things from the distant past

    May I quote you?

    This research may facilitate understanding of autism – good news; whilst specific causes might remain elusive.

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  • “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
    “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
    And quit quoting dodgy research from the Christian Science Monitor!”
    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore

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  • @The Christian Science Monitor – From ancient Greek mythology to Native American folklore, ravens tend to have the same role: the clever tricksters you don’t want to cross. Corvus corax and its relatives were even spies for Apollo, which didn’t end well for his unfaithful lover Coronis, and served as the eyes and ears of Norse god Odin.

    It looks like a classic “faith” approach. – When trying to understand behavioural science, – start with mythology and folklore!

    On the more scientific topic of animal caching behaviour, – foxes and some rodents also hide food, and watch out for thieves who may raid their caches.

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  • quarecuss
    Feb 8, 2016 at 10:35 am

    all woo aside, Alan, have you ever had a ‘close encounter’ with a raven?

    I have seen a raven flying alongside a boat I was in once, but have not seen them close up apart from that.

    There have however been their relatives, – Jackdaws, Jays, Magpies and Rooks, resident in, or near, my garden at various times.

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  • @Alan4
    The ‘closest’ I’ve had was a raven flying directly overhead about 50 feet above me on top of a forested hill in Ontario in the middle of winter when nothing else stirred.
    Hearing its wingbeats and deep croaks in the silence is an unforgettable experience and one that leaves you thinking about all those myths and folklore in a strangely respectful way. The behavioural science only deepens that.

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  • quarecuss
    Feb 8, 2016 at 11:28 am

    The ‘closest’ I’ve had was a raven flying directly overhead about 50 feet above me on top of a forested hill in Ontario in the middle of winter when nothing else stirred.

    I was on the open top deck of a cruise boat on a lake, when the raven flew alongside at my level about 10 feet away, going in the same direction as the boat.

    The other Corvids nest in and around the trees in my garden, but as they compete with each other, some chase the others away so they are not all there in the same seasons!

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  • For some wonderful reading on ravens I recommend the books by Bernd Heinrich.

    wiki page for into:


    I see that there has been a documentary film about him as well. Scroll down to film trailer:


    The book by Heinrich that I recommend for this topic is Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds

    I read this book August 2014. It’s just fascinating. I don’t own the book but I took notes on my reading and there are some notes here that relate to theory of mind as discussed in our article above. As I said on another thread, these notes are taken directly from the book that I named above. I may have deleted some words or rewritten the sentence to shorten it for my notes but I can’t know at this point where I have done that, but the ideas and most of the wording is definitely from this book by Heinrich.

    Here is a paragraph on awareness in ravens:

    Although it may seem logical to suppose that the ravens have awareness of others actions because they anticipate others’ responses before they occur, not everyone agrees with that conclusion. The alternative supposition is that the behaviors are stimulus-response phenomena in an infinitely complex chain of unconscious reflex responses to stimuli ad infinitum. Most behaviorists would be convinced of awareness if, as has been shown with some primates, ravens lie. What is a lie? I would argue that pretending to make a cache and then actually hiding the food somewhere else amounts to a lie.


    In deception a signaler behaves in such a way that the receiver registers something that is, in fact, not occurring. As a result, the signaler benefits and the receiver pays a cost. That is a behavioral ecologist’s definition. To a psychologist, however, lying is not only the giving of false information. Lying, from the psychological perspective implies that the giver of information is aware of the fact that he is giving false information and that he knows this information will be interpreted by an intended receiver.

    And while I’m at it, another book of his that I loved is Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death. This book has information on ravens as well and it’s an all around great read.

    Another of Heinrich’s books that was excellent – Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival has a paragraph on theory of mind in ravens. Again from my notes on this book:

    Ravens- In the intense social interactions among the birds at carcasses in winter, those that can best anticipate the intentions of competitors and the potentially deadly dangerous carnivores also at the carcass, are most likely to be reliably fed. Such a scenario where one or a few individuals may try to control a resource in a crowd is currently a prime scenario for consciousness or what is known among animal behaviorists and biologists a “theory of mind”. This is a much different sort of mental facility than memory, and ravens, although possibly the most intelligent of birds, do not exhibit impressive long-term memory for cache locations, a month may be their limit but that is probably sufficient.

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  • Alan and quarecuss

    I have some difficulty in discriminating between ravens and crows. I’m not a birder myself but one of my birder friends has said that it would be much easier to ID these ravens if only they would hang out socially with crows – discrimination being easier for us than a straight up ID in isolation. But as she says, they just don’t hang out together so this is why I’m having some trouble with this.

    I looked in a bird ID book and it said that one thing different about ravens is that when overhead, their tail feathers appear to be rounded as opposed to crow tail feathers which appear straight across. Also that ravens are a larger bird all around than the crow. But how will I know if I’m looking at a young raven or a crow? A raven’s beak is more robust than that of a crow but this is also difficult to judge with a crow standing conveniently next to my raven. Anyone have hints to give me on ID of ravens v crows?

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  • @Laurie B
    ID of ravens for me has been easy and I’m not a birder as such either. The ones I’ve encountered are always solitary.
    Crows are much more garrulous, sociable and “murderous”!
    @Laurie B
    I read the Heinrich Mind of the Raven book a few years ago.
    Must look into the others.
    rave on

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  • The raven flying alongside a boat I was in, seemed to have an understanding of tourists having sandwiches stashed out of sight in bags, and their tendency to throw bits of these sandwiches for birds flying alongside to catch for entertainment!!

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  • @Alan4
    Not sure what understanding might have been going on in the mind of the raven I was standing under. Standing under a raven in full flight and full voice is beyond understanding. Understood?

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  • @bonnie

    Feb 11, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    nature deficit disorder

    And now for a little one-upmanship:

    My neighbors cut the gorgeous apple tree on our property line. When I asked them whatever possessed them to do such a dastardly deed they answered, “It was attracting too much nature.”

    NDD – They win. Severely afflicted.

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  • @ quarecuss Father Thomas Berry

    Ah, very good! Brings to mind the “green” bible.

    @ LaurieB too much nature

    Wish there were laws for crimes against nature (beyond animal abuse), ticket books would fill.

    One neighbor used to put out mystery food to attract crows, cool to watch – flew to roost at grey dusk (crows).

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  • How to use the new @ function

    The new @ function allows you to address specific users, but you do need to be a little careful with it.

    It works here the same way as on Twitter, i.e. you need to use the person’s user name, which may not be the same as the display name.

    To find the user name, let your cursor hover over the name displayed beside any comment by the user in question. A long link like this will appear at the bottom of your screen:

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/members/[USER NAME]/

    For the @ function you just need the final bit of the link, i.e. the user name – without the / before and after.

    If you don’t use the correct user name, the notification of your comment will be sent to the wrong person, which they will obviously find annoying!

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  • I don’t use Twitter – it’s for twits – so please bear with …

    As I understand it the new function works like this:

    If, in the first line, I type:

    … only the member called Moderator will see this message?

    There is no need for a Twitter equivalent .@ because any reply not using @ will be public?

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  • @stephen-of-wimbledon

    No, everyone will see all comments posted and can join in with their own replies if they wish, regardless of whether or not you use the @ function. Using the @ function simply alerts the relevant user to a comment that’s specifically addressed to them, by sending them an automated email notification. You should have received one about this reply.

    You don’t have to use the @ function at all, so feel free to ignore it. You can simply type the name of the person you’re replying to, as before, in which case they won’t get a notification.

    Hope that helps.

    The mods

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  • @ quarecuss 3:00 p.m.

    Enjoyed the program (via YouTube), always interesting to hear new ideas.

    Do ravens migrate, cross the road, and / or fly above orange barrels.

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  • @ Moderator

    Is it necessary for there to be a space (or no space) between the @ symbol and the name? Or does the @ symbol itself followed by the appropriate user name govern the notification functionality? I’m just trying to make sure I/we use the proper convention.


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