Avian intelligence: Innovation skills in tool-using New Caledonian crows and parrots

Avb keynote

The last panel of DLDw13, says Steffi Czerny, is trule a connection of the unexpected. Princess Auguste von Bayern is speaking on innovation of crows and parrots.

Von Bayern specialises in comparative cognition and the mind and intelligence of crows and parrots. She began her research career with a PhD in Zoology at the University of Cambridge, in the newly emerging field of avian intelligence. Since 2008 she has been working in Oxford University on tool-using New Caledonian crows and parrots.The goal of her research is to unravel the mental abilities of these species which are, she says, very intelligent. "Comparative cognition airs to unfold the process underlying complex behaviour," von Bayern says. Just as evolution acts on body morphology, it also leads brains to adapt. Looking at animals, she says, is a relatively new field. Especially studying non-primates only really became a serious discipline post 1990.

"Our field changed the view of the world in a very short time," von Bayern says of zoology. Many attributes which were thought to be uniquely human are actually shared by apes. Beyond that, these formerly unique human characteristics have also been found in the crow family. For instance, certain crows exhibit the theory of mind (being aware of other minds and perspectives) and self-recognition. Especially the New Caledonian crows show astounding tool use - on that rivals that of chimpanzees, von Bayern says.

"Tool use was once part of the definition of mankind". That is, until Jane Goodall discovered it in chimpanzees. A particular puzzling aspect of crows' tool use, is whether they can use or make novel tools in novel contexts. Von Bayern and her team tests whether crows and parrots have this ability. They found that even when the birds only received indirect instructions, the test birds succeeded in solving the problems they were presented with by innovative tool us.

Showing videos depicting crows using tools creatively, von Bayern smiles and laughs at the ability of her birds, commenting and explaining their behavious. "It would be so nice if the birds could hear your applause!" she says.

As a last example, she shows the first case outside of great apes of additive tool making. The stars of the feat are, once more, are New Caledonian crows. Chimpanzees took over two hours to accomplish the same task that the birds managed in eight minutes. "I hope I've managed to change your perception of crows a little," Auguste von Bayern says as she ends the last speech of this conference. See you next year!

Mentioned in this live blog

Sczerny dezember2015
Stephanie Czerny
DLD Media
Managing Director, DLD Media
DLD Media

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