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The Thoughtful Animal

The Thoughtful Animal

Exploring the evolution and architecture of the mind

Snowboarding Crows: The Plot Thickens

On Friday, I quickly posted this video, which shows a crow – likely a hooded crow (thanks to a commenter at Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog for the ID) – appearing to “snowboard” down the roof of a Russian building, using a small object as a makeshift snowboard.

Over at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal also picked up the video, and wrote: “Science Can Neither Explain Nor Deny the Awesomeness of This Sledding Crow.”

What he meant was that a Youtube video of an animal doing something that looks, to humans, like play, isn’t enough information to reach any meaningful conclusions. He explains:

There are two problems with making much of the video. First, scientists need context. We don’t know where the bird is or how it learned this trick. There’s not much to say without the proper markers of meaning that surround this kind of behavioral evidence.

Second, when humans look at a crow doing something human-like, they have a very hard time not seeing themselves as the crow.

“Human beings have a strong, strong, strong tendency that if we see an animal do something that’s analogous to what we do, like use a tool or answer an arithmetic question, we assume that the animal is doing it and understands the situation in the same way we do,” [Alan Kamil, an expert on corvid behavior] said. “And sometimes that’s true but more often it’s false.”

Kamil (and Madrigal) are right, of course. This video is just an anecdote, a single instance of an animal engaging in a particular behavior. However, digging into the scientific literature has revealed a bit more about corvids, the group of birds including the snowboarding hooded crow in the video, and their propensity for play.

In 1998, comparative psychologist Marc Bekoff together with John Byers, put together a book called Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives. It contains a chapter titled Play in common ravens, written by University of Vermont biologists Bernd Heinrich and Rachel Smolker.

Most relevant to us, at this time, is the following passage, which should strike the reader as familiar.

Observers from Alaskan and Northern Canadian towns routinely reported to us seeing ravens slide down steep snow covered roofs, only to fly or walk back up and repeat the slide. Ravens in our Maine aviary also roll down mounds of snow, and even do so on their backs with a stick held in the feet! David Lidstone, observing ravens at a deer carcass in Maine during the first snow storm of the year, reported that ‘at least three birds flew up to a stump on a 2-3m incline, and then slid down the slope on their backs. Twice the sliding bird was holding a stick in its talons.’ Gwinner (1966) reported seeing his captive ravens repeatedly sliding down a board. We see no obvious utilitarian function for sliding behavior. Perhaps it is a social display (not necessarily play) involved in securing status or mates by ‘showing off’ or drawing attention to themselves.

While this doesn’t tell us if this particular behavior is to be considered play, it does tell us that this type of behavior is probably common among corvids. The crow from the youtube video is clearly not alone among corvids in its love of winter sports.

Earlier: Friday Fun: Snowboarding Crow

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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