Animal Natural Learning Tendencies: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part II

July 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jenny O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. Read Part I – The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven here

Like human babies, ravens are highly curious of all objects upon first leaving the nest. Fearless, they get into everything that’s in front of them and, accompanied by parents who help steer them away from true danger, they are free to explore and learn. As an integral part of exploration, play is a big part of ravens’ lives. Though admittedly difficult to define, Heinrich states that according to most definitions of nonhuman play, it is a behavior that “seems purposeless but possibly just because the observer hasn’t figured out what the benefit is.” Ravens play to have fun, not deliberately to educate themselves. Education is the side effect for which the strong drive to play came about. They play with a full range of skills that are crucial to their long-term survival and wellbeing, which Heinrich talks about in multiple chapters of his book:


Raven tug-of-war. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Through physical play ravens develop strong bodies and graceful movement, such as: hanging upside-down, digging in the dirt, playing tug-of-war, chasing each other, snow-bathing and sliding. Much of this physical play also involves some danger, referred to as “risky play.”

Through risky play ravens learn to manage fear and develop courage, such as pulling other animals’ tails and approaching carcasses that might be equally as appealing to stronger, more threatening animals. In risky play animals also must develop effective communication. Amotz Zahavi, an Israeli biologist, describes effective communication in what he calls the “handicap principle.” Animals must learn first to have reliable signals between the communicators. In order for the receiver to know they’re reliable, they must be costly to make–attracting predators, for example. Heinrich relates two anecdotes of ravens effectively “warning” people of predators lurking, attracting attention to themselves, but also potentially providing themselves a meal if said predator attacks and kills! Through risky play, ravens have even learned to trick animals out of their food—one raven will distract the other animal, for example, and the other will steal its food.

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