Welcome back everyone! Hope you all had a great August. And hope you’re all—like me—jazzed about the start of Season 2 of Many Minds.
There’s a viral video clip from 2014—maybe you’ve seen it. It features a subject in a pretty remarkable psychology experiment. He’s put in room full of different apparatuses, one of which contains reward. After sizing up the room, the subject gets started. The first thing he does is tug on a string until he can reach a short stick that’s tied to the end of it. He then uses that stick to retrieve a stone that was just out of his reach, behind some bars; then he retrieves another stone in the same way; then a third. One at a time, he picks up the stones, takes them across the way, and plunks them down a tube. Nothing happens at first but, after the third stone, the combined weight lowers a trap door, releasing a long stick. The subject then uses that long stick to carefully pry out his reward from a deep hole.
It’s an impressive display of problem solving. But what’s most remarkable is that the subject in question is not a Psych 101 student but a bird—a New Caledonian crow, to be exact—and his name is 007.
My guest on today’s show is Alex Taylor, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland. He’s the one who devised this challenge for 007—it brings together a number of tasks he’s used with New Caledonian crows over the years to try to understand their striking capacities for tool use, for planning, and for reasoning of different kinds.
We talk about how Alex got interested in crows and how he studies them; we talk about what seems to be going on in their minds when they solve multi-step puzzles; we talk about the kinds of tools that crows make and use in the wild and the emerging evidence that using those tools puts them in a good mood. We then zoom out to discuss some of the leading ideas about what drives the evolution of intelligence behavior, whether in crows or chimps or children. We also touch on some of Alex’s new work with another species—the kea, an alpine parrot native to the south Island of New Zealand. We talk about how the kea are in some ways a foil to the New Caledonian crow—a bit more curious, a bit more fun-loving—but also super sharp in their own ways.
This conversation was a real treat. Like many folks, it seems, during the lockdown this spring I found myself with a newfound interest in birds. So I was especially excited to get to tour the world of avian cognition with Alex—a leading researcher in the area and an affable guide at that.
I think you’ll get a kick out of this one folks—and I’m happy to bet it’ll have you looking at your neighborhood corvids in a whole new light. Without further preamble, here’s my conversation with Dr. Alex Taylor. Enjoy.