Ravens Know How to Make a Point

This bird's got something to say. Photo: Franco Atirador

Scientists have found that wild ravens make gestures, a feat even most primates can’t manage. What the birds are
saying, however, is anyone’s guess.

Pointing is one of the simplest ways to communicate. In humans, hand gestures are seen as baby-steps in learning language. To some extent, science has long ignored the possibility that the handless members of the animal kingdom could be gesturing, too.

But after two years observing ravens in the field, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology have spotted ravens doing exactly that. They’ve reported their discovery in Nature Communications.

Raven gestures are targeted to members of the opposite sex and, like a well-timed wink, seem to be an effective way of getting attention. Specifically, the ravens use their beaks to point to or display nearby objects, including rocks, moss, or twigs.

In an odd twist on more common bird behavior like gift giving, these objects are inedible and once a raven’s caught his partner’s attention, the birds don’t actually do anything with the materials.

Scientists aren’t really sure what’s going on here. It could be a totally instinctive process, like a mating display, or it could be sophisticated symbolic signaling. Something like, “Did you remember to leave twigs on the nest today?”

Regardless, the attention to objects is one more clue into the world view of crows and ravens, and—given their impressive tool use abilities—it suggests that like humans, theirs is a material world.

For more on brainy birds, take a look at our Perch post pitting crows and parrots head to head.

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