Are Ravens As Socially Savvy as Humans?

There are nearly 10,000 species of birds on Earth. They live on every continent and come in every color, but many aspects of bird culture have remained a mystery to humans. What is now becoming clear though, is that these bird-brain descendants of the ancient dinosaurs are smarter than we thought.

A recent study into the social behavior of the raven, one of the more notorious avian species, shows there is more to birds than previously assumed. In a quest to understand the social structure of birds, Jorg Massen and his colleagues of the University of Vienna chose to focus their study on the raven, which lives in structured social groups known as an unkindness.

The main focus of the teams study, published in Nature Communications, was to discern whether or not the ravens were intelligent enough to understand their own social structure, or that of another social group. Ravens have a standard distribution of superiority within their unkindness, dominant ravens have access to more food, males maintain dominance over females, and discord is most often present between members of the same gender. Interestingly the paper points out that this structure can change.

When confrontations are initiated by high-ranking ravens, lower ranking ravens will emit a specific call recognizing the superior ravens dominance. When a low-ranking raven does not respond to the superior ravens position, in what is called a dominance reversal call, the confrontation can result in a change of the ravens social structure.

Ravens communicate with specific calls (Images: Flikr)
Ravens communicate with specific calls (Images: Flikr)

Massen and his team recorded the calls made by a group of captive ravens, recording each different call during social conflicts. Individual members of the raven community were then moved into individual enclosures where the calls where then played for them, simulating a single bird overhearing conflict.

“We monitored their responses to these calls to see if they reacted differently to normal dominance calls and dominance reversals. We also used the recordings taken from the foreign group, to see if our ravens recognized the same behavior in other communities.”

Ravens that were played the recordings of a dominance reversal call exhibited signs of stress, either running around or pecking at their own feathers. If the dominance reversal call was from a member of the birds own sex the stress was increased, as the bird expected a change in the social structure.

Females ravens exhibited the most stress, being that they are already ranked lower overall and that any social upheaval could result in access to even less food. This demonstrates the ravens ability to not only understand their social structure, but to predict, to some degree, the consequences of a social change as they impact that individual bird.

Interestingly, when the captive group was played calls from a foreign group they did not exhibit the same level of stress.

“This shows that ravens are able to create a mental representation of relationship dynamics from groups they have never interacted with before, just like us when we watch television. This ability has not even been observed in monkeys yet.”

The exciting discovery shows that ravens may have evolved with social abilities previously only observed in humans.

“Being intelligent helps the ravens play the politics of their social group, and gain dominance. For example, understanding the rank of members of their group would help ravens know which birds to pick on, which ones to team up with and which ones to steer clear of during their quest for dominance”

Sounds like High School. And while this new research demonstrates that ravens may be even smarter than previously thought, it opens us up to another quandary; could all animals be smarter than we think?

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