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Crow (Oromo) Making Two Cats (Tigrayan & Amhara) Fight

Posted by addisethiopia / አዲስ ኢትዮጵያ on October 6, 2021

💭 Scientists Investigate Why Crows Are So Playful

New experiments reveal a complex link between crow play and tool use.

Indirect learning

What this suggests, say the researchers in a recent paper for Royal Society Open Science, is that the link between play and tool use is indirect. The two are clearly related, because the birds who played with tools were much better at using those tools in a food-finding task. But there was also huge variability between the birds, suggesting that they were not all getting the same thing out of play.

Importantly, the birds were not using play as a way of honing their skills on tool-using tasks. Write Lambert and her colleagues:

These results support the hypothesis that unrewarded object exploration provides information about object properties or affordances which can then be used to solve problems, but [they] do not speak to other potentially overlapping functions of exploration such as honing manual skills or generating novel behavioral sequences. Given its apparent costliness, it is likely that exploration confers myriad benefits…

New Caledonian crow subjects may apply information generated from their exploration of novel objects to select functional tools in a later problem-solving task; however, we have no evidence that that they engage in strategic exploration to gain information about the functional properties of objects with respect to a problem-solving task.

Playing is a “costly” activity because birds spend a lot of time doing it when they could be getting food, finding shelter, or doing other things to make survival more likely. From an evolutionary perspective, there has to be some benefit to play if it costs so much. But that benefit, as these researchers discovered, is complex and oblique. Crows played with the ropes because it was fun. Getting better at poking food out of a tube was only a secondary effect.

Crows may play simply because it helps them gain generalized problem-solving skills. Of course, that doesn’t entirely explain one of the often-documented habits of crows, which involves goading cats into fights. In the video below, you can see how a crow pokes and pecks at two cats until they fight, then eggs them on.

A crow gets two cats to fight, then makes things even worse.

Similar videos show crows working together to get cats to fight, and tweaking dogs’ tails to make them freak out. In a sense, the crows are treating these unwitting mammals as tools. They’ve learned the exact things that will drive cats and dogs mad (namely, pecking their backs and tails), and seem to enjoy the results.

What, exactly, is the “reward” for doing this? What are the birds learning in a generalized sense that might help them survive in other situations? The answer, as Lambert and her team discovered, is fairly ambiguous. There may not be any specific thing that the birds are learning from these activities. Possibly all they get is momentary amusement at the idea that they can make other animals do things. This might give crows a better understanding of how to manipulate objects and mammals to get food.

But perhaps further research will reveal that “unrewarded object exploration” is its own reward. Especially if it means that a pair of annoying cats gets tricked into smacking each other around.



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