They say elephants never forget, but it appears ravens can hold a grudge like you wouldn’t believe. A new study from the journal Animal Behavior shows that if you wrong a raven, it will remember your face and shun you the next time it sees you.
There’s a lot to unpick there, obviously, so let’s start with the most obvious question: how do you wrong a raven?
Well first off, this isn’t an experiment you can do with your local neighbourhood ravens. Researchers from the University of Lund and the University of Vienna hand-raised the nine birds involved in the study to ensure they were not afraid of humans. They were then trained to make trades with their biped overlords. Birds were given a piece of bread, and then trained to exchange their dull snack for something far more interesting: a piece of cheese.
This is where the treachery comes in. In the second part of the study, the ravens would pass the bread to the human on the other side of the cage, expecting to receive the piece of cheese back – but the human would then eat the cheese themselves, doing their bit to damage human-avian relations for the rest of us.
With no PayPal dispute style option for a transaction gone awry, the ravens were forced to chalk the bad deal up to experience – but they really did learn their lesson. Two days after the initial experiment, researchers repeated it – this time giving the ravens the choice of exchanging with a fair trainer, an unfair trainer or a trainer they hadn’t met before. Of the seven birds tested, six of them sided with the fair trainer, with the remaining one taking a leap into the unknown by going with the mystery trainer.
A month later, all nine birds were tested, and the results were similarly overwhelming: seven chose the fair trainer, one picked the neutral trainer and just one bird-brain picked the unfair trainer. Although it wasn’t tested, the researchers suspect that the birds will remember the faces for two years – the amount of time they’re able to remember their cage mates for.
So far, so interesting, but there’s one more curious detail. The majority of the experiments involved a second bird in the cage watching the ravens make their deal. This seemed to have no impact on their decision making, however, suggesting that they only have a memory for personal slights, not those involving other members of their species.
We’ve known for some time that ravens – and members of the corvid family in general – are pretty smart as far as birds go, but this is something else. Still, the corvid family aren’t all about moodily holding grudges – crows have been known to take a little time out for some snowboarding, for example:
Just don’t take away their board. It doesn’t sound like they’d forgive and forget it in a hurry.