Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Quoth The Raven…

Ah, those wondrous and so intelligent birds…

SPIEGEL ONLINE - April 10, 2007, 05:46 PM
Masters of Deceit
By Manfred Dworschak

Ravens can toboggan, ride other animals and spy on their enemies. Their life as cadgers stealing prey from wolves, eagles and bears has made them outstandingly intelligent. But do ravens know what they're doing and why? Austrian biologists want to find out.

Those ravens! Their newest form of entertainment is wild boar rodeo. Biologist Mareike Stöwe swears she often sees ravens trotting through the enclosure on the backs of irritated wild boars.

"Ravens like to make an impression," Stöwe says. The birds are always out to perform unusual tricks likely to impress their kin. Dangling head-down from a branch is another popular past-time of theirs.

Ravenologists always have something to laugh about. They're currently observing some common ravens (corvus corax) in large aviaries at the Konrad Lorenz Research Center in Grünau, Austria, where Stöwe works. The play instinct displayed by the birds is tremendous. In the winter time, they tumble down snowy hills. The especially courageous ones grab a boar by the tail and let themselves be towed through the snow on their backs, as if by a drag lift.

And yet the questions explored in Grünau are serious. The most important one is: How intelligent are the animals really?

Their skills when it comes to tricking and cheating, for example, have not been thoroughly explored. Ravens are cunning enough to set up mock hiding places in order to distract their thievish fellows from their real food stores. They're generally very inventive when it comes to tricking those who would snatch away their food. But how much truth is there to reports according to which ravens play dead next to carcasses in order to simulate a case of food poisoning?