A previously accepted difference between Humans and other animals was
that only Humans could possess a "theory of mind" - that is, understanding
that other beings have internal thoughts, mental states, and intentions. In
recent years, higher mammals such as Gorillas have show evidence of
having theories of mind. An article
in the Economist summarizes two new studies in which biologists have
found evidence of theories of mind in birds, a much older and more
primitive form of life. One study by Bernd
Heinrich and others demonstrated that Ravens understood the
significance of the visual behaviour of other creatures and were able to
project gaze trajectories around obstacles. In a
second study, Thomas Bugnyar and Kurt
Kotrschal describe a strategy developed by a raven to deceive
competing ravens in a way demonstrating understanding of the
competitor's intentions. Oh well, we still have syntactic
language and time binding.
For those who are intested, here are links to the two studies.
Unfortunately, both were published in restrictive, non-open scientific
publications so only the abstracts may be viewed without payment.
Corvus corax, follow gaze direction of humans around obstacles
a conspecific away from food in ravens (Corvus corax)
The relative intelligence of birds compared to other creatures has long
been recognised. When I was a kid there was a craze for making curious
bird puzzles out of plastic bottles and such like. The birds would pull
out match sticks in a particular sequence or perch in the right place in
order to release nuts on which they could feed. Initially they would be
baffled and simply try to peck at the nuts through the clear plastic,
but after some experimentation they would figure out how to do it.
Since there was often no direct stimulous/response way of solving the
puzzles they seemed to use a combination of trial and error and
intuition (logical induction). After figuring out the puzzle the bird
would be able to solve it repeatedly in a matter of seconds.
I've also seen rooks apparently engaging in what looks like play
behavior. One bird I once saw seemed to enjoy playing dangerous games
with cars as they passed along a road neer to my house. He would stand
in the road then when a car approached he would quickly fly vertically
upwards and then down again to the same spot after it had passed, and
did this repeatedly even though there wasn't any obvious benefit to
doing it in the form of roadkill or whatever.
Several years ago I had the idea of building a harness that I could
place on a bird, this harness would contain GPS, camera, micro
controller and some small servos that would place pressure on the bird
in various locations. The idea was that with some training you could
teach the bird to fly, land, etc. Much like a horse and use the bird as
an extremely long-range recon robot. The Raven was the obvious choice
as they are for the most part considered pests and in most states here
in the US they are open game through out the year. I figured that if
the government didn't mind people shooting them, then they where fair
game for capture and experimentation. However, after a bit of research,
I found this isn't the case. As they are a migrating animal, it is
illegal to keep them as pets. I really don't understand this law,
farmers are allowed to step out on their back porch with a shotgun and
blast them, however, we can't keep them as pets.
After a bit more research, I did find an African Raven, which you can
purchase in a pet store for around $800 US, however, the African variety
is smaller and said to be not nearly as intelligent as the North
American Raven. The $800 replacement cost of the African Raven
component part of my robot concept made the idea less desirable, as I'm
sure there would be "accidents" during the research. May bee I'll use
chickens instead, at least I could eat the failed experiments.