Ravens can play politics

Ravens are often featured in mythology – spirit, god, creator, trickster, fortune teller and so on – heroes and villains. They are one of the most intelligent birds. A recent paper by Massen et al (citation below) shows that they are even more remarkable than science has so far shown.

The social brain hypothesis is the idea that intelligence and large brain size is an adaptation to social behavior. The more complex an animal’s social life is, the more intelligence they need to be successful. Social animals are more intelligent than their related non-social ones. But animal societies can vary in complexity and that demands extra skills. One of the first things a social animal needs is the ability to recognize all the individuals in its group and to know which are more dominant than itself and which less. It is an advantage to not fight with those that can beat you and also an advantage to not let a weaker opponent bluff you. It is an advantage to have a non-competitive bond, an alliance with kin and special friends. It is an advantage to know the etiquette and group tactics, to communicate, to be deceptive, and so on. All this takes memory, cognitive skills, and emotional control plus some theory of mind if the social adaptations include predicting others behaviour.

We have some social behaviours that have not yet been found in other animals, but the list has been getting shorter. Another area to be found not exclusively ours is a ‘political’ skill: to be able to observe but not interact with another group and figure out the dominance structure in that group. Primates can do this other group trick but they need to react with at least some of the strangers directly. The Mason paper shows that ravens can do it with just observation. They can observe another group, learn to tell the individuals apart and learn the dominance hierarchy in that group. Raven’s “cognitive skills are expressed primarily in the social domain: on one hand, they flexibly switch between group foraging (including active recruitment) and individual strategies (like providing no or false information about food, attributing perception and knowledge states about food caches to others); on the other hand, they form and maintain affiliate social relations aside from reproduction and engage in primate-like social strategies like support during conflicts, and reconciliation and consolation after conflicts. Understanding social relations of others may be key in those behaviours. Ravens also remember former group members and their relationship valence over years.” And this new skill to that list.

Massen and the other researchers had a group of young ravens in a pen (for other reasons) and another group within sight. They staged fake encounters between pairs of ravens that were just out of sight using recorded sounds. Sometimes the staged encounters matched the dominance relationship between the hidden birds and sometimes they were opposite to the expected interaction. The reaction of the test raven to these staged encounters was studied. In this way the researchers could note which dominance relationships the raven knew and which they didn’t by their reaction to incongruous events. There were differences between male and female birds in their reactions, and which staged encounters that most surprised them. But overall, ravens can very often learn the dominance hierarchy of another group by just observing them. This may be found in other animals (when it is looked for) but until now we only knew that humans could do this bit of social behavior.

Here is the abstract:

A core feature of social intelligence is the understanding of third-party relations, which has been experimentally demonstrated in primates. Whether other social animals also have this capacity, and whether they can use this capacity flexibly to, for example, also assess the relations of neighbouring conspecifics, remains unknown. Here we show that ravens react differently to playbacks of dominance interactions that either confirm or violate the current rank hierarchy of members in their own social group and of ravens in a neighbouring group. Therefore, ravens understand third-party relations and may deduce those not only via physical interactions but also by observation.”


Massen, J., Pašukonis, A., Schmidt, J., & Bugnyar, T. (2014). Ravens notice dominance reversals among conspecifics within and outside their social group Nature Communications, 5 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4679

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