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Ravens communicate better than most of animal kingdom

Wild ravens in the Austrian alps have been observed using their beaks and body language to direct another raven’s attention to a specific object, marking the first time such complex gesturing has been documented in an animal outside of humans and their primate cousins.

The findings suggest that Corvus corvax -- those canny black birds that dominant both Alaska Native myth and Anchorage’s winter-time parking lots -- may have communication abilities and intelligence that puts them on par with bonobos.

By repeatedly demonstrating a kind of “look at that” gesture thought to be at the foundation of human language -- behavior seen in human infants beginning at about the age of 1 -- the birds may even be smarter than some nonhuman primates, according to a study published today in the journal Nature Communications.

"Gesture studies have too long focused on communicative skills of primates only,” said Simone Pika, of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, in a story about the research. “The mystery of the origins of human language, however, can only be solved if we look at the bigger picture and also consider the complexity of the communication systems of other animal groups."

The new research is part of a broader investigation into what Pika’s website calls “comparative gestural signaling” exhibited by primates and other animals, particularly the Corvid family that includes ravens, magpies and jays.

“Recently, the idea of the bird family Corvidae representing a mirror group to the primates in respect to cognitive capacities has gained momentum,” wrote study co-author Thomas Bugnyar, at his "Raven Politics" project website. “Understanding the social life of corvids may thus be critical in our attempt to understand primate cognition, since comparison between these groups may offer the unique opportunity to identify which cognitive abilities are common to social living. …”

Humans begin gesturing long before they can hold a conversation. Think of how babies will point to food or toys as a way to direct a parent’s attention. These “triadic interactions” -- involving two people and one object -- are more complex than one might assume, involving eye contact and other social behavior. The focus isn’t on using the object but on drawing the other person’s attention to it.

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