Crows, often confused with their larger cousins, the ravens, have long been celebrated for their intelligence within the corvid family. Recent research has shed new light on the remarkable cognitive abilities of these feathered creatures, revealing their capacity for statistical inference.
Statistical inference, in simple terms, is the process of making decisions based on previous experiences and the likelihood of certain outcomes. In human terms, it’s akin to choosing a restaurant based on past experiences with crowd levels. But what about in the avian world?
At the University of Tübingen, two carrion crows underwent a fascinating experiment to test their statistical inference abilities. These birds were trained to peck at images displayed on a touchscreen to earn rewards. However, this was just the beginning of a more complex learning process.
The crows were trained to associate nine different images with varying reward probabilities, ranging from 10 to 90 percent. Dr. Melissa Johnston, the lead author of the study and a Humboldt Fellow at the University of Tübingen, explained, “This is where the crows learn the unique pairings between the image on the screen and the likelihood of obtaining a reward.”
What’s truly remarkable is how quickly these intelligent birds grasped the concept. After just 10 days of training, they could distinguish the different reward probabilities associated with each image. Their ability to make these statistical inferences was put to the test through a series of trials.
The results were nothing short of astonishing. The two crows consistently selected the image linked to the higher reward probability, showcasing their capacity for statistical inference. Impressively, even after a month without any further training, they remembered which images were associated with a higher reward.
Melissa Johnston emphasized the significance of this finding, stating, “Crows were tasked with learning rather abstract quantities, associating them with abstract symbols, and then applying that combination of information in a reward-maximizing way.”
The data from the trials painted a clear picture of the crows’ statistical prowess. They chose the image with the higher reward probability an impressive 76 percent of the time. Furthermore, when faced with a choice that included a reward probability exceeding 50 percent, the crows were even more inclined to select the image with the highest reward.
This discovery places carrion crows in the company of other intelligent beings, such as giraffes, known for their ability to make statistical inferences. As researchers continue to unravel the mysteries of animal cognition, one can’t help but wonder what remarkable feats these feathered geniuses will accomplish next.