Homeless in Vancouver: Thinking like a hungry crow and other intelligence tests

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      Wednesday morning (November 22) found me at a restaurant in the 1400 block of West Broadway enjoying breakfast. At least I was enjoying breakfast until it was brought to my attention that a crow was orbiting my parked bike trailer, locked to a pole a few metres away.

      Crows bring a level of intelligence and inquisitiveness (not to mention acquisitiveness) to the business of foraging that I find almost unnerving, particularly when it is my business they are poking their beaks into.

      I well remember a spring day in 2014 when I was sitting in the same restaurant seat and watched a person place a wrapped, store-bought sandwich on my bike trailer, locked to the same pole.

      Before I could even stand up, four crows swooped in like flashes of black lightning and, between them, unwrapped and consumed the sandwich in not much more time than it takes to say “Hey! What the f—.”

      The three pigeons that then appeared were not backward in cleaning up the remaining crumbs.

      It was as if the sandwich had never existed. The flocking air pirates even made off with the plastic sandwich wrapper!

      So this morning, the most important meal of the day suddenly became less important to me than finding out what the curious corvid thought was so interesting about my trailer.

      Proof that being a birdbrain isn’t what it used to be

      A flock of one. A time-lapse photo of crows investigating my trailer.
      A flock of one. A time-lapse photo of crows investigating my trailer.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Crows are as cautious as they are clever and covetous. I’ve never seen a crow become so focused on spoils that it loses sight of its surroundings.

      This particular crow was constantly breaking off its investigation of my trailer in order to keep a comfortable distance between itself and oncoming traffic—both vehicular and pedestrian.

      So it took a bit of observing for me to see exactly what the crow thought that it saw in my trailer. Time and again, though, its attention returned to the same thing: a branded plastic supermarket carrier bag visibly tucked in the front left side of the trailer, under a sheet plastic rain cover.

      After the dodging and swooping crow got a chance to observe the bag up close three or four times, it apparently dismissed the possibility that it contained food and flew off, presumably in search of better pickings elsewhere.

      The bag didn’t carry food and it never had; it contained clean socks. And it wasn’t the only plastic bag on front of my trailer—just the only plastic supermarket bag.

      The suggestion here—for me at least—is that the crow’s interest wasn’t guided by simple direct evidence, such as the sight or smell of food. Perhaps it was acting on its own memories of other supermarket carrier bags that had contained food. Or perhaps crows have enough language that one of its peers told it that a supermarket-style plastic bag has a higher probability of containing food than, say, a shoe store bag.

      Either way though, that morning’s crow arguably appeared to be doing more than just processing real-time facts of the “here and now”, like the smell of food—what’s called concrete thinking. It looked to be engaging in complex abstract thinking, involving past events and conceptualization.

      Abstract thinking was once believed (by human beings, at least) to be a uniquely human capability. Many studies in the last 20 years, though, have convincingly shown that crows (and other corvids, such as ravens) can think abstractly and conceptuallyunderstand analogies, and even fashion crude tools as needed.

      Brain size was long believed to correlate to higher intelligence—but only chauvinistically, in so far as humans have bigger brains than most other animals—never in the sense that whales have the biggest brains and are therefore smarter than human beings. Another thing that used to be considered essential to cognition was the complex neocortex unique to mammalian brains.

      Crows, however, seem to be able to do a lot of high-level, human-like thinking with very small brains, which conspicuously lack a neocortex.

      Are other species more intelligent or are we are less-so?

      The prospect of artificial intelligence (AI) obsesses many people and the idea of discovering and communicating with alien species captivates many more.

      Meanwhile, crows and ravens—not to mention elephantscephalopods (octopus and squid), and cetaceans (whales and dolphins)—are far more complexly and completely intelligent than any so-called artificial intelligence that has so far been created. And cephalopods and cetaceans are quite literally intelligent alien species with apparent language, living right here on our own planet.

      Yet outside of a small minority, informed by specialized fields of research, human civilization stubbornly clings to a fictional mythoreligious conceit that we are the apex of creation, with the god-given right to kill or otherwise exploit all other life on the planet solely for our immediate gratification.

      And while we blithely go about killing incredibly sophisticated and intelligent species that we barely understand, we flatter ourselves that we do understand intelligence—enough to play god and create fake digital life in our own image.

      But I for one do not think that we have a handle on what intelligence actually is yet. Our ideas of cognition still seem too bound up in explaining how and why we are the most intelligent species on earth. Even as we raise our estimates of the intelligence of other species we find another metric that keeps us ahead of the pack.

      A real understanding of the underlying principles of the acquisition of knowledge will probably see us fundamentally unseated as the apex species.

      Crows and all other animal species on earth will probably be seen as more intelligent but first and foremost this will likely be because we have finally admitted that human beings are comparatively less intelligent.