Crows and their relatives have lived alongside us for millenia, becoming an integral part of our mythology and culture, from Gilgamesh and Odin to Chinese myths about the sun. Many of the birds in the corvid family (which includes magpies, rooks, jackdaws, ravens and, of course, crows) show an impressive level of intelligence. In addition to using tools, these remarkable birds have shown the ability to recognize individual humans and warn each other about “bad” humans. Now a study by Simone Pika and Thomas Bugnyar has shown that ravens make referential gestures — pointing out items and offering them to other ravens. While this may sound like relatively mundane behaviour, it’s actually surprisingly rare in non-human animals; our closest relatives, the great apes, don’t seem to do anything similar. Humans begin to produce and understand referential gestures like pointing around the same time that they start learning language; it’s been suggested that this link isn’t accidental, but represents that it is around this age that human children begin to acquire a theory of mind. By understanding that other people are also intentional agents — that is, that they also have a mind and act in order to accomplish goals — children are able to overcome many of the difficulties involved in acquiring a language. Observing referential gestures in ravens not only enhances our understanding of (and respect for) these majestic birds; it also casts our view of the evolution of linguistic pre-requisites in a different light.
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