Home > Nature, observations > The logic of play (ravens)

The logic of play (ravens)

April 13, 2007

In the April ‘07 Scientific American, Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar (great name, Thomas) describe how young ravens snatch food from large predators…

“Food bonanzas are not only provided by carnivores, they are often quickly consumed by them.  It pays the attending ravens to get an early start in the feeding cycle, preferably next to the carnivores while they are still eating.  To do that, the birds need to be able to predict the predator’s behavior, such as whether or when the animal might attack, how far it can jump, and how it may be distracted.  Some of that knowledge needs to be in place before the raven is distracted by feeding, because in that context practice could be deadly.

Check: “Watch out for that wolf while you’re stuffing your beak with his kill!”

Indeed, the birds acquire practice more safely early in their lives.  Juvenile birds, when undistracted by feeding, routinely “test” the reactions of large animals such as wolves nd other carnivores by interacting with them, usually by landing nearby and then nipping them from the rear…

OK, that just sounds freaking hilarious.

It is unlikely that such behavior is tactically deliberate.  More likely it is a form of “play”, defined… as a behavior that has no immediately discernable function but that commonly has an ultimate function, one that is not consciously intended but that proves useful anyway.

Remember playing “kick the can”?  “Keep-away”?  and of course “Hide and go seek”?  Neurologically speaking, there’s probably a lot going on there.

Even youngsters recognize that nipping carnivores is dangerous (they display fear when they do it), and thus they must be wired to engage in such activity because the risky play ultimately aids survival – presumably by giving them experience in gauging how much they can get away with around their carnivore companions.  By such provocation, they soon learn which animals to trust and the distances required for safety.  Conversely, their nearly constant presence around the carnivores accustomes the larger animals to the birds, and they gradually learn to ignore them.  But getting along with dangerous carnivores is only a means to the end of getting access to a rich supply of food. 
Scientific American, April 2007 pg. 64-71, “Just how smart are ravens” by Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar

Wonder how well video games stack up against kids’ play in the non-cyber world, and if some kids naturally learn better in an artificial environment than others.  (Wish I had a cartoon here of crows playing video games)


Categories: Nature, observations
  1. Ted
    April 13, 2007 at 17:37 | #1

    usually by landing nearby and then nipping them from the rear…

    Trolling. Not really contributing anything. Just self-amusement, sometimes dangerous.

  2. April 14, 2007 at 09:26 | #2

    A friend once told me that a small flock of ravens usually shadowed him on his daily walks to work.  Sometimes, he said, a raven would swoop down to buzz him or even pluck at his hair.  He started wearing a hat, and the ravens eventually lost interest in following him.

  3. April 14, 2007 at 11:03 | #3

    Calling Alfred Hitchcock!  I don’t think I’d like them flying around my head.  They’re big birds; an adult raven’s wingspan is about 1 yard.  Of course, if hair is what they want, no worries in my case :lol:

  4. April 15, 2007 at 22:28 | #4

    The functional explanation is thoroughly convincing, but I also think there’s a more mundane reason for this behavior. Animals sometimes get bored with everyday routines and messing with other animals is a great way to cure boredom. I don’t think having a little mischievous fun at some other creature’s expense is unique to the human animal.

  5. April 16, 2007 at 03:07 | #5

    Probably both explanations are true because they are complimentary rather than exclusive.  Enjoyment of play confers a selective advantage for the functional reasons given and probably some other ones we haven’t thought of.  The raven isn’t thinking; “Oh, darn, it’s time to go study wolf psychology again.”

    I don’t think having a little mischievous fun at some other creature’s expense is unique to the human animal.

    Heretical!  ;-P

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