Science Can Neither Explain Nor Deny the Awesomeness of This Sledding Crow

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Before we talk, you need to watch the video above. It's just one minute and 24 seconds. You'll observe a crow (probably a 'hooded crow') pick up the lid to a jar, set it down on the apex of a snow-mottled roof and slide down one side, carefully keeping its feet on the lid until it gets to the bottom. Then it picks up the lid, flies back to the apex, tests out another face of the roof, finds it lacking, returns to the original position, and slides down again.

It is a remarkable demonstration of the intelligence of the crow, which sits on a smart branch in the animal tree within the family Corvidae. There is something so deliberate about this play: the crow uses a toy; it searches for the best sledding path; it repeats the adventure down the roof; it keeps upright with its feet planted on the lid when, as a bird, it could simply fly. The bird does not want to travel down the roof, it wants to slide down the roof.

I wanted to know if there was a greater significance to this video and this amazing bird. So, I called up Alan Kamil, who has been studying corvids for decades and is co-director of the Center for Avian Intelligence at the University of Nebraska. I've got to send you this YouTube clip of this crow sledding down a roof in Russia, I told him.

Across the phone line, I heard Kamil gamely open his email and begin to watch the video. Like most people who watch the video, he chuckled and said, "Wow, this is cool," a proposition to which I assented.

Then I started my questioning. What can we learn from this YouTube video? How can we explain this bird's behavior? Is there some natural analog to this in the wild? Was there some kind of greater lesson here about the evolutionary process or how crows use play?

Kamil demurred. "It would just be storytelling." Exactly! I wanted to exclaim.

"It is in keeping with the general reputation of corvids," Kamil told me. "I don't know what to make of it scientifically but it is a cool example of a play-like behavior in a corvid."

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," he said. "And sometimes that's true but more often it's false."

And with thousands upon thousands of animal videos forming the core of YouTube's value (just kidding!), we now have an opportunity to anthropomorphize a great variety of animal behaviors. Kamil noted, though, that his worries about our human-centric view of animals were "not a comment on YouTube." Our tendency to see ourselves -- our type of consciousness, really -- in animals long precedes the Internet.

All that may be true, but looking at the crow, can't we just *tell* that it's having a really good time? Doesn't our presence in the animal kingdom give us some insight into our fellow creatures?

"I've worked with corvids, various species for 40 years now, and I have no doubt in my mind as a person that they enjoy certain things, playing around kinds of things, but I've never done research about it," Kamil told me. "I have a dog and talk to my dog and think of it as a little human being, but that's as a dog owner, not as a scientist."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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