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The rational bird

Posted by Ruth Graham  September 25, 2012 05:00 PM

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A few years ago, crows mesmerized scientists and TED talkers when it became clear the birds knew how to produce and use tools, both in captivity and in the wild. A new study suggests another high-level cognitive skill in the avian toolkit: The New Caledonian crow may possess the power of causal reasoning, previously believed to exist only in humans. Discover’s 80beats blog offers a nice summary of how researchers tested for the elusive skill: They designed an experiment in which crows came to associate the presence of a large curtain with a threatening stick poking around near the their food box; when the birds were allowed to see a human leaving the curtain, they relaxed, indicating they were able to infer a human’s presence was responsible for the stick’s activity.

The authors of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, say that this is the first time an animal has been shown to “make inferences about hidden causal mechanisms.” It joins a list of several recent discoveries of animals performing eerily human-like functions, like the birds that conduct “funerals” for their dead peers, the apes that enjoy slapstick humor, the birds that produce art for art’s sake, and the chimpanzee that conducts rigorous studies of primate behavior. (OK, that one’s from the Onion.)

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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