Ravens’ capacity for intelligence isn’t news to scientists. These birds are excellent problem-solvers and can tackle physical challenges with persistence and relative ease. What researchers hadn’t expected to see in ravens, though, was a kind of intelligence that only humans can match: a complex awareness of social order outside of one’s own community.
Because ravens live in groups, Jorg Massen of the University of Vienna and his colleagues wanted to measure the extent to which they’re cognizant of social patterns within (and without) those groups—as well as how conflict arises out of them. In competition for food and other resources, ravens will emit calls that assert dominance or submission depending on where they rank in the social order. Usually, ravens that are lower on the totem pole will respond to dominant calls with humility—but occasionally, they respond with a “dominance-reversal call,” which can lead to clashes and confrontations. Massen and his team recorded various captive raven calls in different situations and then played those recordings back to see how the ravens would respond to dominance-reversal calls from both inside and outside their own communities.
When they heard dominance-reversal calls recorded from their own group, the ravens appeared agitated, as though they could sense that trouble was stirring. And when they heard dominance-reversal calls from members of the same sex, their stress level was even higher because conflicts based on rank only occur between members of the same sex.
Here’s Declan Perry, writing for ArsTechnica:
But perhaps the most impressive finding was that ravens seemed to notice dominance reversals in a foreign group of ravens, although they exhibited less stress than when they heard such calls from their own social community. To be sure that the ravens weren’t just recognizing that call because it was an audibly different call, Massen played calls from a different community, which weren’t dominance-reversal calls, and saw that the captive ravens were not stressed.
Massen said: “This shows that ravens are able to create a mental representation of relationship dynamics from groups they have never interacted with before, just like us when we watch television. This ability has not even been observed in monkeys yet.”
The conclusions aren’t necessarily universal, since the study was done on captive ravens and not wild ones. But it does show that ravens’ intelligence isn’t limited to isolated puzzles or obstacles.