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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