Do ravens plan for the future?

The answer to the title question is “apparently so, and at about the level of great apes and four-year-old human children”. That, at least, is the conclusion of Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath, the authors of a new paper in Science on raven behavior in the lab (reference and free download below; see also the Perspective summary in Science by Markus Boeckle and Nicky Clayton).

Ravens, like most corvids, are very smart. They’re known to cache food for later consumption; they know when another raven is watching them cache, and then re-hide their food in response; and they can follow the gaze of another raven looking at its cache, and then pilfer that cache later. These, however, aren’t regarded as ravens using new information to plan for the future, though it seems to come close to that!

What Kabadayi and Osvath did was to teach five captive, hand-reared ravens two new skills, not employed in nature, which involved using a tool or token—both of which could be used to obtain food. They then tested whether the ravens could remember how to use those items to get food after a delay of either 15 minutes or 17 hours, testing whether ravens could figure out how to plan for the future. Moreover, the authors asked whether ravens could delay gratification, foregoing a present treat to get a better one in the future.

The first experiment involved teaching ravens (who largely taught themselves) to use a pebble as a tool to open a device containing food. They were also given other “tools” that didn’t work properly. After learning, they were given the treat-containing apparatus on the next day without any tools, presumably so they could ponder its presence and cogitate.

Then the apparatus was removed and the ravens presented with an array of four tools, only one of which worked. They had to choose a tool. The apparatus with the food was then given to them after a delay of 15 minutes.

The experimenters did this again, but with a longer delay: 17 hours.

In both cases, the raven almost invariably selected the right tool and “cached” it for later use to get the food.

In the second experiment, the raven was given a token that it could give to the experimenter in return for food. After they learned to do this, the experimenter “asked” for the token when the birds didn’t have it; this was designed to provide an incentive. Finally, a tray was presented with the token and three useless items that could not be exchanged for food. (Actually, they were given three identical trays so they could choose and cache up to three food-redeeming tokens.)

Again, after either a 15-minute or 17-hour delay the experimenter showed up ready to deal. And again, the ravens selected the correct tokens over 95% of the time, even when they couldn’t be used for many hours.

Finally, the experimenters put a twist in the experiments by putting a treat in among the tools or tokens—a treat that was not as good as the future treat they could obtain by bartering with the token or using the tool to get food. If they selected the first-offered treat, they wouldn’t be able to get a token or tool to obtain the better, future treat. And in both cases (though not as often as when there was no “immediate” treat), the birds chose the tool or token, ignoring the present treat, over 70% of the time—and this was true whether the delay was 15 minutes or 17 hours.  I won’t give the data; you can see it in the paper.

The authors suggest that this says something deeper than does the simple ability of ravens to cache food for the future; and they might be right. Cacheing and watching others cache might just be evolved responses without real learning, while in this case the ravens clearly learned that tools and tokens were useful for getting food–even after nearly a day. Well, we knew they could learn from previous work, but does this study show that they can “plan for the future”?  I’m not sure, as it shows ravens have long memories of associating a stimulus woth a reward. But the authors conclude that even that kind of long-term association is seen only in apes:

This study suggests that ravens make decisions for futures outside their current sensory contexts, and that they are domain-general planners on par with apes. In the tool conditions, including self-control, the ravens were at least as proficient as tool-using apes. In the bartering conditions, the ravens outperformed orangutans, bonobos, and particularly chimpanzees [Detailed comparisons are available in (14).] The first trial performances show that the ravens’ behaviors were not a result of habit formation, and that they perform better than 4-year-old children in a comparable set-up.

What impresses and convinces me more is the fact that ravens can give up a present treat in anticipation of a better one in the future. To me, that suggests that these birds really can anticipate and plan for future actions. So yes, that’s pretty impressive.

This paper has gotten a lot of attention from the press, but since the paper is hard to read (all that data was compressed into two journal pages), people have just accepted the take-home message. But I think the details are fascinating—especially the finding that ravens can turn down a treat if, by so doing, they get a better treat the next day. That is bird smarts!

Here’s a photo from the Perspective piece showing other clever behavior of ravens:

(From Boeckle and Clayton perspctive): Tool-using raven. In a separate experiment, a raven involved in the Kabadayi and Osvath study uses a stick to poke for food in a tube (first photo). She succeeds in pushing the stick into the hole (second photo), but handling the stick is tricky for her. She then invents a new way of solving the problem: She fills the tube with bark pieces (third photo) and thereafter pecks at the bark until the food falls out.


Kabadayi, C. and M. Osvath. 2017. Ravens parallel great apes in flexible planning for tool-use and bartering. Science 357-202-204.


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Thank you PCC(E) for, again, coming up with the only thing I chose to read about this headliner, which I first saw a few days ago, maybe on the release date.

    Couple comments:

    1. delaying a treat in the now moment in preference for a treat later is a huge thing with the raising children crowd.

    2. It’s even more exciting to read PCC(E)’s writeup if you substitute the words “crows”, “ravens”, etc. with “velociraptors”.

  2. Randy schenck
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Bird brains now have new meaning. And it says in the study that Ravens shared an ancestor with Mammals around 320 million years ago.

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      And they do all this without our celebrated cerebral cortex.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

        Sort of, seems amniotes have cell-type homologs with resulting tissue that vary over a structural scale:

        “Our data establish that the neuronal circuitry of the avian telencephalon features cell types with the connectional and molecular properties of mammalian neocortical input and output neurons. … A modern evolutionary perspective would expect that the varied neuronal architectures of the amniote pallium—a multilayered neocortex, a cortex with a single cellular layer, or an amalgam of nuclei—are each likely to have specific advantages and specific limitations. A challenge for evolutionary neurobiologists is to understand which circuit properties are enabled and which are precluded in each of these design architectures.”

        [ ]

  3. BJ
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Ravens establishing rudimentary monetary systems and local governments when? Can we elect some to Congress?

    Here’s an article about crows that started giving little gifts to a family *after* the family started leaving food for them daily. It doesn’t seem they were bartering, but rather giving shiny things as a form of thanks:

    Man, corvids are awesome.

    • Colin McLachlan
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      I, for one, welcome our new corvid overlords.

      • BJ
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Don’t blame me. I voted for Corvdos.

    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes they are awesome. When he was young, a friend of mine raised a crow from chickhood. Once it became an adult it left the house permanently but it became a part of the family, living in the neighborhood and visiting daily. My friend said the crow didn’t come for food – it lived on its own. He is convinced it came back daily because it wanted company. He showed me a photo of the bird riding on the handlebars of his bicycle as he pedaled through the neighborhood.

      Amazing animals.

      • BJ
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Now I really really want a crow friend.

  4. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    This is very cool. Instead of all these Planet of the Apes movies, should someone be writing Planet of the Crows?

    • Randy schenck
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Edgar Allen Poe was on to something…nevermore.

      • Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        People from all over the world have raven stories. And we are slowly piecing together why.

        Raven amongst the Inuit often brings disaster which results in something positive, or something positive which results in something disastrous. For example, a burning log is brought from far to the south, which heats up the frozen people, but then melts all the houses and floods everywhere.

  5. Danny Kodicek
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Wow, this is great. Although I have to admit the first thing that came into my mind, entirely unfairly, was this sketch.

    “My life has been a miserable failure, yes”

    • bric
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Surpassed only by the Frog and Peach, another of Sir Arthur’s ventures

      • veroxitatis
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        Cook’s “Miner” and its unsurpassed explanation of God’s creation of coal is my favourite from that period.

    • Nicholas K.
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Great bit, that is. Laughed out loud.

  6. Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  7. Kevin
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Impressive. But how could they not be, they are messengers of the gods.

  8. PatrickQ
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Thee-eyed ravens definitely prepare for the future. And the past.

  9. darrelle
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Yet another fascinating study on the intelligence of certain birds.

    Sometime in the past year or so I saw a documentary about bird intelligence in which a corvid demonstrated yet another ability that really amazed me. I can’t recall the name of the documentary off hand. I watch everything about bird intelligence I come across. I also can’t recall what specific species of corvid this was.

    In any case, researchers were performing a series of trials designed to study problem solving and tool use by placing food in a “puzzle-box” like contraption for the bird to solve. In one such test a researcher placed a novel set up, that the bird hadn’t seen before, on the ground and then demonstrated how to get the food out of it. The set-up was then reset and the bird was allowed to try and get the food.

    What happened? What I was fully expecting to happen was that the bird would mimic what the human had done to get the food. Instead the bird hopped right up to the box and rather quickly successfully executed a method that was simpler and that completely bypassed the purposely designed mechanism! And let me clarify that the solution was not something simple or possibly accidental, like shaking or tilting the box. It involved operating a mechanism in a certain way and the bird did it readily in what appeared to be a purposeful way, not as if it were merely experimenting. It looked as if the bird was able to quickly find a solution that the humans who designed the box did not intend or notice.

    Indeed, if they can outsmart our scientists then perhaps we should all hail our corvid overlords. Just in case.

    • dabertini
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      I once saw a raven turn a discarded bag of chips upside down to empty its contents. That blew me away.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink


      You are remembering an incident from this very experiment. An Einstein corvid had to banned from the trials before it could teach the others his ‘hack’:

      Quoted from Jacob Dubé [Jul 13 2017]:
      “I phoned co-author Can Kabadayi, a doctoral student in cognitive science, over Skype to ask him about the new paper. He described to me how one experiment took an eerie turn: One raven in the experiment figured out how to work their rock/box contraption first, then began teaching the method to other ravens, and finally invented its own way of doing it. Instead of dropping a rock to release a treat, the future Ruler of the Raven Kingdom constructed a layer of twigs in the tube, and pushed another stick down through the layer to force it open. The bird had to be removed from the experiment before it could teach any other birds how to do it”

      • darrelle
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        That is awesome, and hilarious. But, that isn’t the incident I am thinking of. Thank you for pointing this one out to me though!

        I can’t be sure I am recalling this completely accurately, but in the incident I am thinking of the bird disassembled the box in such a way that the floor of the box fell open. Even at the time of watching it I couldn’t make out whether the box had been designed for the floor to be removable for ease of use for the researchers, for example a trap door for servicing the box, or if the bird simply figured out how to disassemble the floor. In any case the researchers did not intend for opening the floor to be an option available to the bird.

        I should note that it may have been the case that the bird witnessed a researcher assembling or disassembling the floor of the box at some other time when it wasn’t being tested, and remembered that. But that would be sloppy of the researchers!

  10. karaktur
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    So could this also mean that the ravens also learned to trust that the experimentors would play by the rules if the ravens chose the token over the immediate treat?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      @karaktur There have been corvid/human trust experiments & corvids hold ‘grudges’ against the experimenters who didn’t fairly exchange tokens for food.

      I wonder how finely corvids can distinguish individual people. Clothing, shape, voice, mannerisms?

      • karaktur
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Very interesting article, thank you for sharing.

  11. PeteT
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Corvid erudition

    I’m afraid that a puffin,
    Knows nuffin’ ’bout ’nuffin,
    And to say owls are wise?
    A complete pack of lies!
    Your average crane,
    Has a very small brain,
    But there’s nothing a crow doesn’t know.

    You’ll find that a thrush,
    Is as daft as a brush,
    And the scope of a sparrow,
    Intellectually narrow.
    The dim-witted tern,
    Is so slow to learn,
    But there’s nothing a crow doesn’t know.

    Sadly the kite is,
    Hardly the brightest,
    And the finch and the seagull,
    The duck and the eagle,
    And the grouse and the plover,
    All as thick as each other.
    But there’s nothing a crow doesn’t know.

    • Colin McLachlan
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 4:21 am | Permalink


  12. Michael Fisher
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    The 18-page pdf was most detailed & answered all my questions about the proceedure & the physical setup. I was amused by this bit:

    “Rewards: In all experiments the delayed reward was one full piece of FROLIC DOG KIBBLE. This was chosen as it is a highly favored food item by all subjects. In Experiments 3 and 4 the immediate food reward was another type of dog kibble, smaller in size and with a different taste. The ravens also valued this food item, but not as much…”

    However we are not told if the gourmet corvids preferred the beef or the poultry Frolic Dog Kibble

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink


    • Posted July 18, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Ravens also apparently enjoy Cheetos, which I always found incredible.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

        @Keith Perhaps Cheetos are very bright in UV – corvids being tetrachromats? I’ve seen pics of Cheetos – they look too orange to me, but perhaps to a Raven there’ a lot more going on visually. I have magpie & crow visitors & bling is a magnet for them.

        Side note: The magpies love to torment the pigeons. They’ll hop up behind them & pull their tail feathers – I think magpies do this for fun.

        • Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          But “bright in UV” – would that be an indicator of food?

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted July 20, 2017 at 6:34 am | Permalink

            @Keith “bright in UV” I found this re birds foraging for berries: “…Unlike humans, birds perceive ultraviolet (UV) light (320 to 400 nm), a waveband which is known to play a role in avian mate choice. However, less attention has been paid to the role of UV light in avian foraging. Some blue, violet and black berries reflect UV light. The colour of berries might be an effective advertisement for avian seed dispersers and indicate the stage of fruit ripeness”

            • Posted July 20, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

              Hm! A Cheeto as a giant berry – an interesting hypothesis.

              My guess was something about the saltiness, but …

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted July 20, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

                I thought of saltiness first, but according to most birds perceive sweet, sour & bitter tastes. Also they only have around 3% the number of taste buds that we have [I don’t know if that’s important – smaller tongue = less buds I suppose].

                I looked at an interesting abstract of a paper on a species of female bird that changed mate preferences when the UV part of the spectrum was blocked, so seeing in UV light is very important to birds. It was also found with ringed males of that species – the females preferred certain ring colours to others! And that preference changed with UV filters too. Although the experimental results are somewhat questionable – not a well designed set of experiments seemingly.

      • Bruce Lyon
        Posted July 18, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        Yellow-billed magpies and scrub jays in California also love Cheetos!

        • darrelle
          Posted July 18, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          Who doesn’t love Cheetos? The crunchy kind of course, not the puffy kind.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry, I had indeed not read about the treat deferral!

  14. grasshopper
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Edgar Allan Poe knew that corvids can plan for the future, hence the insightful line from his famous poem

    Quoth the Raven “Furthermore…”

  15. loren russell
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    If I understand the criteria correctly, “planning for the future” is widespread among birds [esp. corvids and parrots] and mammals. In some cases, it’s species-specific routines that might be seen as instinctive — caching of food is a survival skill that must have some hard-wired basis. But there are many instances where the planning is so flexible or where it grades into what seems like insight, or into play.

    Most of my close observation of vertebrate behavior has been provided by a succession of feline overlords, and it often seems that they have some insight into future usefulness of present actions.

    One of our past overlords, Toby, had an inordinent fondness for little foam balls, devising games where he would carry them up a flight of stairs or our steep driveway, release them and dash down to catch them on the bounce. He also seemed to lose many balls — eventually I bought at least 30 replacement. Eventually I discovered their fate — he was caching little nests of balls in tufts of grass or old vole tunnels about our garden, and visiting them in rotation to practice mousing.

    Lionel, a majestic Maine Coon was successor to Toby. He was calm, sweet, and interactive, but had a particular loathing for visits to the veterinarian over his long life. Usually just for his annual check-up, but he was near-psychic in sussing out the date of an appointment. We learned that any handling of the carry-cage was a tell, and resorted to spelling V-E-T. To no avail, he still figured it out and hid.
    But what I found remarkable was that each year, he had a novel hiding place that he’d never used before. Evidently he would spot a new piece of furniture or basket that he could sqeeeze his considerable girth into, or learn how to open a particular drawer. And save the safe-hole for a rainy day.

    Neither Toby’s nor Lionel’s behavior would be completely instinctive — in the former case, big cats like leopards and cougars may cache kills, but F. sylvestris/domestica rarely kill anything they can’t deal with immediately.

    And safe-rooms may be normal for domestic cats, but the secretive rotation of refuges by Lionel seems both future-oriented and an outcome of his theory of mind of his staff.

  16. Hempenstein
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    “Do ravens plan for the future?”

    Indeed, they seem to. But for their sake I hope a class of preacher ravens doesn’t follow – “Have you planned for your future?”

  17. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted July 19, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    If I may play devil’s advocate, one can concoct an alternate explanation for the tool and barter scenarios that doesn’t invoke forward planning. Rather, the bird could come to associate the tool or token with the fond memory of delicious treats, and collect them for the sake of that remembered pleasure (just as we collect snapshots, keepsakes, and souvenirs).

    Later, when the experimenter shows up with more treats, the bird has a cache of tokens available to trade with, but not necessarily because it collected them with that purpose in mind.

    I agree that the deferred-gratification scenario is less ambiguous evidence of forethought.

  18. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 22, 2017 at 6:26 am | Permalink


    These short videos for the impatient are right to the point :

    Crow using a tool :

    Crow channeling its inner Archimedes :

    I’m also impatient so I used my own trick which is mine “REMOVE_THESE_CHARACTERS” in the link.

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