Ravens Appear to Communicate Using Gestures–A First for Non-Primates

By Valerie Ross | November 30, 2011 1:42 pm

Before they can talk, babies use gestures to communicate: sentiments such as “take this away,” “look over there,” and “put me down” can be made abundantly clear without words. Chimps gesture to each other, as well, pointing out particular spots where they’d like to be scratched or groomed. These symbolic gestures are believed to be an important precursor to language. Now, researchers have observed ravens using gestures in the wild—the only non-primates seen doing so.

Over two years, the researchers saw ravens pick up stones, moss, and other non-edible items with their beaks, and display or offer those objects to another bird, usually of the opposite sex. The other raven, in turn, usually looked over in response, and often had positive interactions with the gesturing raven. Other birds gift gifts while courting, but in this case, the birds weren’t delivering the moss and stones to the recipient; the objects aren’t put towards a purpose like making nests, as such gifts often are, and seem to be used solely to get noticed and spark an interaction. Since ravens form monogamous, highly cooperative pairs, these interactions could be used to attract the attention of a possible mate or solidify the bond with an existing one, the researchers suggest. Finding gestures in a species so distant from our own, they say, could help illuminate the origins of human language.

Ravens, along with crows, magpies, jays, are corvids—a particularly brainy group of birds that have shown some sophisticated capabilities, such as recognizing human faces, building and using tools, and even passing on grudges. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the birds are communicating through symbolic gestures: It’s possible, other researchers point out, that what looks like an attention-grabbing gesture may be a mating ritual—an instinctive behavior driven by hormones—or a simpler, more scripted form of communication.

Reference: Simone Pika & Thomas Bugnyar. “The use of referential gestures in ravens (Corvus corax) in the wild.” Nature Communications, November 29, 2011. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms1567

Image courtesy of Jon Sullivan / Wikimedia Commons

  • sam

    ” It’s possible, other researchers point out, that what looks like an attention-grabbing gesture may be a mating ritual—an instinctive behavior driven by hormones—or a simpler, more scripted form of communication.”

    Why make this distinction? Ultimately everything can either be attributed to the goal of mating and producing viable offspring, or a useless mutation in our behavior/DNA. Does the fact that an activity contributes to my ability to reproduce make that activity less interesting? Why obsess over the failures — the less efficient paths to sex? Are those what make us human?

  • dcwarrior

    Also, arguments that try to distinguish what animals do from what people do usually give too much credit for what humans do. People use gestures all the time that are scripted and habitual, and generally not thought through. Perhaps the biologists should do some field work in the dance clubs if they think there isn’t a continuum between instinctual behavior driven by hormones on one hand and attention-grabbing gestures on the other. The difference is in degree, not kind.

  • Mnm Hugot

    Maybe they should trying living with one of these birds in their home. I have a crow that would have died in the wild as a baby. He has been living with us in the house as part of our family for two years. Believe me he communicates using gestures all of the time. He can make himself and his wants very clear. Why should it be any different in the wild between birds?

  • Cathy

    I would have thought that cats and dogs communicate with gestures as well – unless tails don’t count for some reason.

  • http://howtosavetheworld.ca Dave Pollard

    Anyone who has read any of raven expert Bernd Heinrich’s works would be aware of a very broad range of corvid gestures, and their many apparent purposes — some of them quite whimsical and evidently just for fun. Heinrich also explains that, contrary to the article above, ravens are not monogamous — most ravens are bachelors who spend most of their time just having a good time. Unlike humans, ravens are smart enough to manage their numbers to stay in balance with their ecosystem, and smart enough to manage their time so they only work as hard as they have to to live a comfortable, joyful life.

    I’m sure they have a wide range of gestures to communicate knowingly to each other what they think of our colossally arrogant species. But perhaps I’m anthropomorphising.

  • Ug

    Why do we consider ourselves so much different than the rest of the animal kingdom? I’ve seen so many scientist ask such stupid questions regarding the behavior of animals solely because they consider a lot of behavior as human and therefore above the ability of other animals. They want to say that we evolved with all the other animals on Earth but act as if we are completely different, you can’t have it both ways.

  • Jeanne Weiske

    What’s amazing to me is how totally clueless these “experts” really are. Anyone that spends time observing other animals (those “lesser” species), soon accepts the fact that they’re a lot smarter than they’re given credit for. This seems to be a need to feel superior on the “experts” side. As a retiree, I’ve had time to observe the corvids in my area, smart is an understatement. And they have a clear sense of humor. I’ve watched them tease my cats from outside the window, with definite satisfaction at the cats’ frustration. I’m just glad that, in most cases, scientists no longer claim that animals feel no pain. They do need to leave the lab and enter the real world for awhile, and observe. Observation is a premier way to validate an idea. And not in the lab, out in the wild, under natural conditions.

  • Chris the Canadian

    Jeanne I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head in your assessment that some ‘experts’ should leave the lab for awhile and look at the real world around them. Sometimes these so-called ‘experts’ are so entangled in their own arrogant thoughts and explanations they fail to see the obvious. Animals around the world display all sorts of methods of communication and interaction. Dogs have different barks and whines. Birds show displays of dance and architecture that would make some of our greatest engineers and art directors envious. Watch how a mother horse or antelope or wildebeast treats their newborn calf or how a heard of Water Buffalo encircle their weak and young from attack by a pride of Lions.

    To say that these are ‘instinct’ and don’t have communication or thought is ridiculous. We, as humans, are animals. We may be highly evolved and intelligent and create and invent and destroy, but we are animals nonetheless. The more scientists view our species as just that, a species, the closer we will be to understanding our origins and who we are.

  • Ted Greenstone

    I just want to report how my cat told me to shut up, by using a gesture. I sat on my bed whistling a tune because I was in a good mood, Tabitha (the cat) walked into the room constantly meowing, and I continued to whistle all the while wondering why she was being noisy. She jumped up to my lap and very deliberately placed her paw on my mouth. She impressed the hell out of me by delivering a clear message.

  • http://pandoraspantry.com michael sirbola (aka: very slow-learning species, or… ?)

    My miracle dog “Bug” constantly irritates me by hiding the ball behind bushes and trees or in high grass (often near a prior pooh-event, please note – not”Pooh-event!”).

    So irritating have these three habits in particular become over the past few years that I am inclined to throw the ball less and less.

    Instead, I play magician, you will note that this involves me much more, as the main magician and center-stage object of attention by deftly (personal judgement) rolling and moving and hiding the ball in and around the two of us within a small sphere.

    I often hide the ball in the crook of one bent knee, under an arm, or held to the side of the head, just so (my three favorites).

  • http://pandoraspantry.com michael sirbola (aka: very slow-learning species, or… ?)

    This deserves to be put to song, can anyone put this to music?

    ” We may be highly evolved and intelligent and create and invent and destroy, but we are animals nonetheless. The more scientists view our species as just that, a species, the closer we will be to understanding our origins and who we are”

    – “Chris the Canadian” Prior Comment; Number Eight (8).

  • http://pandoraspantry.com michael sirbola (aka: very slow-learning species, or… ?)

    I have observed (my) squirrels using stones to scoop up the peanut butter I pour (hot outside) onto a flat stump. I’ve seen them carry them, and use them to scrape up the last bit of peanut butter – stones are not left when there is a puddle of peanut butter. I believe this may be the first evidence of tool use in a squirrel – I am tempted to call up my old High School teacher (Mr. Wells). Boy would he be surprised!

    Seriously, though – anyone interested in more info? Is this a note-worthy observation?


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