Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Close up portrait of a common raven (corvus corax)
Close up portrait of a common raven (corvus corax)

At Scientific American: Ravens Are As Smart As Chimpanzees

Birds have a different brain structure from mammals but that doesn’t appear to limit natural intelligence

We wrote about this earlier but now Scientific American has weighed in. Researchers were trying to address the deficiency in studies of raven intelligence that focused only on whether the bird knew that the researcher was hiding something:

A new study that that tries to address that deficit provides some of the best proof yet that ravens, including young birds of just four months of age, have certain types of smarts that are on par with those of adult great apes. The brainy birds performed just as well as chimpanzees and orangutans across a broad array of tasks designed to measure intelligence. “We now have very strong evidence to say that, at least in the tasks we used, ravens are very similar to great apes,” says Pika, lead author of the study. “Across a whole spectrum of cognitive skills, their intelligence is really quite amazing.” The findings, published in Scientific Reports, add to a growing body of evidence indicating that impressive cognitive skills are not solely the domain of primates but occur in certain species across the animal kingdom.

Rachel Nuwer, “Young Ravens Rival Adult Chimps in a Big Test of General Intelligence” at Scientific American
A raven in Dartmoor, UK

In other smart raven news, we have learned,

Kabadayi and Osvath designed a series of experiments with five captive birds to see if ravens can plan for an unseen future.

The basic experiment is as follows: The researchers taught the ravens that if the birds place a special tool in a tube sticking out of a box, it will release their favorite piece of food—one whole piece of dog kibble.

Then, the scientists took the box and the tool away.

An hour later, the team offered the ravens a choice of objects—one being that special tool.

Fifteen minutes later, the ravens got the box back.

Shaena Montenari, “We Knew Ravens Are Smart. But Not This Smart” at National Geographic (July 13, 2017)

Those who live near ravens or other corvids can cite many similar examples of intelligence. Birds have a different brain structure from mammals but that doesn’t appear to limit natural intelligence. Ravens have a large number of brain cells in one of the largest brains of any bird:

Beyond explaining how and why ravens act as they do, it’s how this innate intelligence manifests itself in behavior that makes these birds fascinating to observe. As seen on NATURE, ravens achieve mastery and possess manipulative powers over other creatures in their domain, often letting others do work for them. For example, ravens will call wolves and coyotes to prospective meals so they can expose the carcass and make the meat accessible to the birds. In addition, ravens will show their true scavenger colors by waiting for other birds with specialized foraging skills to make a catch and then cunningly seize the defeated prey for themselves.

Discover the Brainpower of the Bird in Black” at PBS Nature (June 10, 2008)

The pallium that covers the upper surface of the raven’s forebrain has been found to be similar to that of mice, monkeys, and humans. The number of neurons in their pallia is similar to the number for monkeys. (Ross Pomeroy, RealClearScience, September 25, 2020)

Raven intelligence is nothing like human intelligence. But the fact that ravens draw level with chimpanzees casts doubt on traditional assumptions as to how intelligence is acquired. Uniquely human intelligence isn’t explained by the fact that we are closer to chimpanzees than to ravens. The story appears more complex.

Here’s a recent documentary on two ravens who compete to deceive each other about where food is hidden (November 11, 2020):

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So now ravens are as smart as chimpanzees… But wait! Weren’t chimpanzees supposed to be the closest thing to humans? We have no reason to believe that the human ability to reason arises from material sources. Maybe ravens are as smart as chimps because reason is not required for their life.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

At Scientific American: Ravens Are As Smart As Chimpanzees