Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Creative corvid - who's the bird brain?

a pecking order for avian cognition....

The New Caledonian crow is the only non-human species known to invent new tools by modifying existing ones, and then passing these innovations on to other individuals in the cultural group. They have also been seen making tools that they use in the wild out of completely different material.

In 2002, researcher Kacelnik and colleagues at the University of Oxford observed of a couple of New Caledonian Crows called Betty and Abel: Betty's toolmaking abilities came to light by accident during an experiment in which she and Abel had to choose between a hooked and a straight wire for retrieving small pieces of pig heart, their favorite food. When Abel made off with the hooked wire, Betty bent the straight wire into a hook and used the tool to lift a small bucket of food from a vertical pipe. This experiment was the first time the crows had been presented with wire.

(from the Behavioural Ecology Research Group at the University of Oxford)

The cognitive capabilities of corvids seem to be closely tied to social complexity. The larger the group within which a bird species lives, the more adept are individuals of that species at using intelligence to predict their position within a dominance hierarchy. But how do birds achieve such complex cognition with relatively small brains? This is, as yet, unclear, although it has been suggested that larger numbers and greater densities of neurons are to be found in the brains of the more “intelligent” birds. This was the case in a preliminary comparison between corvids and pigeons, but it needs to be confirmed.

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