Talking Crow

Surprising New Study Shows Crows Experience Complex Subjective Experiences and Consciousness

(TMU) – Consciousness is one of the greatest mysteries in the universe and humans are still in the dark on a wide range of related scientific questions, but a new paper is presenting a fascinating plot twist in the story of conscious perception on Earth. Based on the first experimental study of its kind, the authors suggest that crows experience conscious perception and subjective awareness in ways that are neurologically similar to humans and non-human primates.

The results of the new study provide the first experimental neurological data suggesting that crows – and, presumably, other birds and non-primate animals – are capable of vastly more complex cognitive processes than previously believed.

The lead author of the study, Andreas Nieder, says:

“The results of our study opens up a new way of looking at the evolution of awareness and its neurobiological constraints.”

Nieder and his neuroscience research team at the University of Tübingen conducted the study by measuring the brain signals of corvid songbirds as they received visual sensory input and simultaneously documenting their behavior. The results, which stunned the scientists, demonstrated the birds experience a form of conscious perception that was previously considered the domain of humans and other primates.

“Nerve cells that represent visual input without subjective components are expected to respond in the same way to a visual stimulus of constant intensity,” Nieder explains. “Our results, however, conclusively show that nerve cells at higher processing levels of the crow’s brain are influenced by subjective experience, or more precisely, produce subjective experiences.”

The reason the results were so surprising is that birds have very different brain structures than humans and non-human primates, who have a cerebral cortex. Until now, many scientists have considered the cerebral cortex the main mechanism for the production of strong subjective experiences. While crows and other corvid birds have demonstrated cleverness and the ability to solve puzzles, they were not thought to subjectively analyze the external world.

Brain scans from the new experiment suggest otherwise and, according to Nieder, this could have ramifications for how we study the origins of consciousness on Earth and its evolution across a wide variety of species.

“The last common ancestors of humans and crows lived 320 million years ago,” the neurobiologist states. “It is possible that the consciousness of perception arose back then and has been passed down ever since…the capability of conscious experience can be realized in differently structured brains and independently of the cerebral cortex.”

The finding could alter how we view the evolution of consciousness. Some scientists believe that there may have been multiple different forms of sentient awareness that developed independently across the world in different species.

In addition to bolstering the study of consciousness in non-human species, the work could help change the way we view animals in general, as we learn that they have their own universe of perception, replete with their own subjective feelings and reactions.

At the very least, the phrase “bird brain” may be on the chopping block.

Surprising New Study Shows Crows Experience Complex Subjective Experiences and Consciousness

On Magpies & Crows

Our Animal Friends

Our Animal Friends


The Stunning Intelligence of Crows and Magpies

Reprinted with permission by


Something made me look outside my office window… An intensity of energy?  An unusual movement caught my eye. Loki the fox was crouched in his enclosure looking very excited and very predatory. Above him a panicked bird was flying circles, panting, terrified of stopping for a moment. I rushed out. At any moment Loki could leap and vitality would become a pile of lifeless black and white feathers. The moment I opened the door to Loki’s enclosure a crack the magpie shot out, directly over my head, faster than I could believe. He had seen the possibility of freedom and made an instantaneous calculation that the fox was a greater danger than the human. End result: Well-entertained fox; safe and wiser bird.

Looking out the window over my computer, I almost always see one or more of the handsome black and white birds flitting, hopping, perching or observing. I see them every day. All over the property they are squawking, stealing, plotting, complaining, playing, inventing, and generally declaring their presence and vivid life-force. But because I see them every day, I fall prey to that common human quality of taking them for granted, barely noticing them. If I even give them that much recognition. As I walk to my writing cabin absorbed in human thoughts, I am ignoring their busy lives as they flit all around me going about their magpie business. How could this happen? It is a function of the human brain to adjust and accept and then not really see any more. When we are children everything is full of wonder, but there is no reason we can’t keep that alive. We just have to work at it a bit. Familiar, does not mean ordinary. And I forgot that.

I “knew” that the crows and magpies we see all around us are smart, but that’s as far as my awareness went. I had to go to halfway around the world to India to get a new appreciation for them—specifically to an international conference on animals held in New Delhi this past month. One of the presentations was on the intelligence of the corvid family, which includes crows and magpies. Dr. Auguste von Bayern, a researcher with impeccable credentials from top animal behavior institutes, flew in just for a day, driven by her discoveries to help change the perceptions of these maligned birds.


She presented evidence showing that their brain size in relation to body mass is equal to that of great apes and dolphins, and only slightly lower than humans. And that it is not just their brain size, but cognitive abilities as well, that are on par with those of the great apes. In fact they are considered by some researchers to be among the most intelligent of all animals.

How can that be? Aren’t mammals the most highly evolved, most intelligent creatures on the planet? We used to say “birdbrain” because we measured the brains of birds using ours as reference point. But our human-oriented perspective led us astray. The sharp intelligence of corvids arises despite the fact that their brains are built in a way that is fundamentally different from those of mammals. Corvids use a portion of their brain that has no direct counterpart to humans, parts that we discounted because they didn’t fit the location of intelligence in the human brain. Apparently acute intelligences have evolved more then once, in different ways.

Thinking Birds


Evidence of the intelligence of crows, magpies and other members of the corvid family are plentiful. Corvids have been recorded to recall their food’s hiding place up to nine months later. The Clark’s nutcracker, a type of North American crow, collects up to 30,000 pine seeds over three weeks in November, then carefully buries them for safekeeping over an area of 200 square miles. Over the next eight months, it succeeds in retrieving over 90 percent of them, even when they are covered in feet of snow. Brain power.

Urban-living crows have learned to use road traffic for cracking tough nuts. On a university campus in Japan, crows and humans line up patiently, waiting for the traffic to halt. When the lights change, the birds hop in front of the cars and place walnuts, which they picked from the adjoining trees, on the road. After the lights turn green again, the birds fly away and vehicles drive over the nuts, cracking them open. The birds wait patiently with human pedestrians for a red light before retrieving their prize. If the cars miss the nuts, the birds sometimes hop back and put them somewhere else on the road. Or they sit on electricity wires and drop them in front of vehicles. (From the BBC series “The Life of Birds”.) Crows have shown remarkable innovative tool-making abilities even beyond those of chimpanzees.

Members of the corvid family have been known to watch other birds, observe where the other birds hide their food, and steal it once the owner leaves. They also move their food around between hiding places to avoid thievery, but only if they have previously been thieves themselves. Cache robbing is common. Knowing the character of their compatriots (through their own mischievous efforts), a magpie often makes several false caches before making a real one. They use their own experience of having been a thief to predict the behavior of a pilferer, and can determine the safest course to protect their caches from being pilfered.

What the above examples show is that these birds are thinking. That is one of the things that’s so interesting. They demonstrate many of the intellectual abilities we associate with human thinking but without language  This suggests that many of our intellectual abilities which we assumed we need language for, we don’t. That opens a window into understanding our own thinking in a different way.

Social Birds


Corvids are also intensely social birds with a strong sense of community. They send out sentinels so the others can eat without worrying about predators. They provide mutual aid. A group of crows in England took turns lifting garbage bin lids while their companions collected food, showing a capacity for teamwork. The bond between the male and female is extremely strong and often lifelong. They build nests together, and the male will feed the female as she sits patiently on her precious eggs. Both parents look after the chicks. Young corvids play elaborate social games similar to “king of the mountain” and “follow the leader;” they manipulate, pass, and balance sticks, and show what certainly looks like joy as they slide down smooth surfaces, climb or fly back up, and do it again. And again. They have a sense of self, recognizing themselves in a mirror. They have been reported to recognize each other as individuals; call one another by “name.” The black-billed magpie, the ones outside my window, have been seen to hold a “funeral.” When one magpie discovers a dead one, it begins calling loudly to attract other magpies. The gathering of loudly calling magpies (up to 40 birds have been observed) may last for 10 to 15 minutes before the birds fly off silently.

I see these raucous, chattering, vibrant, brassy birds very differently now, these direct descendants of dinosaurs. As a result my world is richer and more colorful. Not only are they definitely extroverted, opinionated beings, but once you tune in you sense an awareness, an alertness, an intelligence. It reminds me that we are surrounded by the many intelligences of other beings. That gives a wonderful sense of companionship.

You would think, living with bears and wolves and many other animals, that the appreciation I developed would carry over to all species. But in my busyness running an organization, which involves human-centered and human-created necessities such as fundraising, insurance, and staffing, I got lost in my own head. I just pretty much ignored magpies and the great vitality they add to the land. It is a constant learning to be ever more open to what is around us and not get lost in our own busyness. It so impoverishes us. I wonder how we can help each other enter into, or stay, in the mode of broader awareness. I will work on that but would welcome your thoughts. Maybe I will try to concentrate for one week on each life form around me – birds, mammals, trees, plants. That promises a lifetime of learning, increasing awareness and companionship.

PS – About that magpie who almost got caught… how come, if they are so smart? They are birds of great appetites as well as great intelligence, and I suspect greed got the better of him.  Apparently it is possible to be greedy as well as intelligent…


The Birds Know

Hitchcockian Crows Spread the Word About Unkind Humans

Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Date: 28 June 2011 Time: 07:01 PM ET
An American crow.
CREDIT: stock.xchng

The common crow knows when you’re out to get him — and he’s likely to teach his friends and family to watch out for you, a new study finds.

In results that can only be described as Hitchcockian, researchers in Seattle who trapped and banded crows for five years found that those birds don’t forget a face. Even after going for a year without seeing the threatening human, the crows would scold the person on sight, cackling, swooping and dive-bombing in mobs of 30 or more.

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