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Crows Understand Water Displacement Better Than Your Kid

Even Aesop knew that crows were so smart they understood how to get water to their beaks.

smithsonian.com

Crows are clearly the evil geniuses of the bird world. Years of exploring crow intelligence have revealed that these birds are terrifyingly smart. And now new research confirms that crows understand a concept that most children don’t: water displacement. 

Even Aesop knew that crows were smarty pants. His story "The Crow and the Pitcher" features a thirsty crow that encounters a pitcher with water in the bottom. But his beak isn’t long enough to reach it. So he adds stones to the pitcher until the water comes to him. This could, in fact, be a non-fiction story. Just look at this study:

In the study, researchers put pieces of meat floating in long narrow glasses. The crows not only figured out that they could add objects to the glass to bring the treat to them, but they also went for the food in glasses with the highest water levels first. Aviva Rutkin at New Scientist points out that this is on par with human children:

The crows displayed reasoning skills equivalent to an average 5 to 7 year old human child, the researchers claim. Previously, Eurasian jays have shown some understanding of water displacement, as have chimpanzees and orang-utans, but using similar experiments could assess and compare their skill levels. "Any animal capable of picking up stones could potentially participate," write the researchers.

David Quammen once hypothesized that crows are simply the bored teenagers of the animal world. In an essay in Outside Magazine, he wrote:

Crows are bored. They suffer from being too intelligent for their station in life. Respectable evolutionary success is simply not, for these brainy and complex birds, enough. They are dissatisfied with the narrow goals and horizons of that tired old Darwinian struggle. On the lookout for a new challenge. See them there, lined up conspiratorially along a fence rail or a high wire, shoulder to shoulder, alert, self-contained, missing nothing. Feeling discreetly thwarted. Waiting, like an ambitious understudy, for their break. Dolphins and whales and chimpanzees get all the fawning publicity, great fuss made over their near-human intelligence. But don't be fooled. Crows are not stupid. Far from it. They are merely underachievers. They are bored.

Never again shall we doubt your intelligence, crows. Please just don’t kill us all. 

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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