The long and the short of it: rule-based relative length discrimination in carrion crows, Corvus corone

Behav Processes. 2014 Sep;107:142-9. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.08.009. Epub 2014 Aug 22.


Birds and other nonhuman animals can choose the larger of two discrete or continuous quantities. However, whether birds possess the conceptual grasp and cognitive control to flexibly switch between relative more-or-less-than judgments remains elusive. We therefore tested carrion crows in a rule-based line-length discrimination task to flexibly select lines presented on a touchscreen according to their relative length. In the first experiment, the crows needed to discriminate a shorter from a longer line, and vice versa. In the second experiment, the crows were required to choose a medium long line among three lines of different length (intermediate-size task). The crows switched effortlessly between "longer than/shorter than" rules, showing no signs of trial history affecting switching performance. They reliably chose the relatively longer and shorter line length, thus demonstrating a concept of greater than/less than with a continuous magnitude. However, both crows failed to discriminate a line of 'medium' length embedded in longer and shorter lines. These results indicate that relational discrimination exhibits different cognitive demands. While a greater than/less than concept requires only one relational comparison (with the respectively greater or smaller magnitude), the discrimination of a 'medium' magnitude demands to relate two or more comparisons, which might overburden crows and maybe animals in general.

Keywords: Continuous quantity; Corvid songbird; Executive function; Intermediate relation; Intermediate size; Rule switching.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Crows / physiology*
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Male
  • Space Perception / physiology*