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Crows Infer Actions of Hidden People

New Caledonian crows prove capable of yet another cognitive feat--inferring the actions of hidden people.

By Jef Akst
September 18, 2012

Already famous for their impressive problem solving skills, New Caledonian crows can now add logical inference to their repertoire. Alex Taylor of the University of Auckland in New Zealand placed a box with food near a hanging blue sheet, behind which someone could hide. A stick protruded from the sheet. Crows watched as people walked behind the sheet, then saw the stick move, and finally saw the people leave.

This seemed to make sense to them. But if they saw the stick and box move without observing someone enter and exit the hideaway, the crows became more cautious, exploring the blue sheet instead of probing the box for food. (See a video of this behavior at ScienceNOW.) According to the researchers, the crows had likely inferred that if the stick was capable of moving, and no human left, maybe it could still move.

"We show that tool-making New Caledonian crows react differently to an observable event when it is caused by a hidden causal agent" than by an agent that could be seen or inferred, the authors wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where they published their results yesterday (September 17). "This difference shows that the crows can reason about a hidden causal agent"--a cognitive ability previously only attributed to humans.

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