Ravens smarter than most other animals, say researchers

German researchers have discovered ravens are smarter than previously thought. They are the only non-primate to use gestures to communicate.

German scientists find ravens the only non-primate to use gestures

German scientists have found ravens are the only non-primate species to use gestures to communicate with each other. (CBC)
Yellowknife resident Rhonda Miller says ravens often tease her dogs, and she has even nicknamed the birds 'feather sharks'. (CBC)

German researchers have discovered ravens are smarter than previously thought.

Simone Pika and Thomas Bugnyar, from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, said ravens not only communicate with their voices, but they also use gestures such as showing and offering objects to each other such as moss, stones and twigs.

This means the birds are the only non-primates who communicate in this way.

"When people study gestures, they only look at human gestures and how great apes [gesture], so in a way this is the first research showing that another species beside primates [gesture]," said Pika.

Pika watched ravens in the Austrian Alps. She saw the birds point out objects like twigs and rocks to each other. She says these are the same skills toddlers learn and use.

Pika found the birds often use these skills to help select a mate or build bonds with birds they already know.

People in the North have long known ravens are intelligent. The large birds are known for their sophisticated vocal skills.  They can solve complex puzzles and imitate other bird calls and even human words.

They’re also known as a nuisance for when they ravage garbage bags or tease dogs.

"It can find food anywhere and it gives you attitude," said Kevin Paul in Yellowknife.

"I put the food on the picnic table and then I turned around for a minute, and then I turned back and there was a bunch of ravens," said Bettyjune Ailanak Mercredi.

Dene elder Muriel Betsina says ravens have been helpful to the Dene. She says they are known to make sounds to alert hunters that a caribou or moose is nearby. (CBC)

"We had automatic light that went on to light up the back yard so they learned in the night time to wrap their wings around the light to turn it on and keep warm," said Yellowknife resident Rhonda Miller.

Miller added that they often tease her dogs and steal their food. She has even nicknamed the birds "feather sharks."

Dene elder Muriel Betsina isn't surprised this iconic bird is revealing yet another side.

"There is a legend about the raven, how smart the raven is," said Betsina.

The raven is a trickster in many aboriginal cultures. But Betsina says ravens have helped her people survive for centuries.

"When you hear a bunch of ravens making all of [these] happy sounds … they are telling us there's something out there, a moose or caribou. Raven is part of the family," she said.

Pika’s study was published in the journal Nature Communications. Pika says she and her colleagues plan to continue their studies on ravens.