The IQ Test (making friends with crows #13)

(image courtesy Chuck Groenink)

This is the 13th installment of my friendship with crows.  Click here to start from the beginning. 

Watching an excellent PBS documentary about crows, A Murder of Crows, I was intrigued by Anna Braun’s study to test crows’ reasoning abilities. She shows a crow a computer screen displaying two simple icons: tapping one shape produces a treat, but tapping the other produces nothing. It didn’t take long for the crows to figure things out. Then, she replaced one of the known icons with a new one so that the crows needed to redefine the treat-trigger, and the crows were quickly able to infer the right choice.

Think about it– the crow is looking at 2D icons on a computer screen, tapping merrily away, when my own grandmother was stymied by a touch screen. Every time she went to the grocery store, a clerk had to help swipe her credit card.  Granted, she lived for eighty years before she had to learn this new technology (and if anyone tries to give me an intelligence test when I’m 90, I’ll spank them with my walking stick).  Still, I bet if you gave a crow a dollar, it could figure out how to put that bill in a vending machine and buy itself a candy bar.  (Oh. Some guy named Joshua Klein did that already.)

According to Anna Braun, on this test, human children, crows, and apes had comparable learning curves. (When the test was given to dogs, it took them more than 70 attempts to learn how to get the treat.)  So their “bird” brains are comparable to primates’, and crows are almost as capable and intelligent as children when it comes to manipulating a simple environment to get what they want.

My crow friends have definitely figured out how to get what they want from me. They don’t have to push a button, but I do have to see them. They have learned that I’m not particularly observant so as I’m driving down our street, a crow might swoop low over my car to make itself seen. They station one look-out crow across the street from our house: He sits on the telephone wire, spying on our front door, and when I finally emerge, he calls all the others. If I don’t see him, he calls down to me to make himself known. “Yoo-hoo,” I imagine him saying, “have you forgotten already? Where is my peanut?”

For my kids, it’s a little more complicated.  If I am the computer, they are the hackers; if I am the human vending machine, they are the brainiacs who know just where to tap the side to get whatever they want without paying.  They know exactly how to push my buttons, and just how long they can poke before I totally lose it.  They’re so good that sometimes, I wonder how far they will go.  So I decided to give them a test.


Materials:  Sticky notes (with several different scenarios drawn on them– some positive (like the picture of a kid hugging her mom), some negative (a drawing of a kid kicking her mother in the butt, for example)) and a bag of chocolate kisses.

Method: I sit on a stool in the middle of the room and show my test subject two of the pictures.  She gets to choose which one to act out.  She is rewarded with chocolate if she chooses the positive scenario, but gets no treat if she chooses the negative.

Hypothesis:  The test subjects will quickly finesse out how to get the chocolate.

Desired Results:  Both small humans will be classically conditioned to be nice to their mother. Kissing me will feel as good as eating a chocolate kiss.

First, I tested the 5 year old small human.  When offered the choice between giving me a back scratch and biting my finger, she giggled hysterically for a full minute, her eyes shifting from one sticky note to the other.  Finally, she chose the positive, and got her reward.  The first time she saw the butt-kicking option, she nearly fell over giggling, but she chose the hug instead. The 5 year old never chose the negative option, earned 10 chocolate kisses, and shoved them all into her mouth at once.

Second, the 11-year-old took a turn.  She passed on the butt-kicking option the first time, but not the next.  She gleefully bit my finger twice, but not too hard–  no blood was observed.  She says that kicking my a** is more fun than chocolate.  The 11-year-old performed the test in lightning speed and earned 7 chocolate kisses.

Actual Results:  The 11 year old decided it wasn’t fair, so I gave her three more chocolates, and I let the 5 year old kick me in the butt just once as a reward.  Both kids were jacked up on sugar for about an hour.

Conclusion:  They eat all the chocolate but I still can’t figure out how to get them to clean their room. I wonder what that says about my intelligence?  I conclude that my kids have me figured out.

I am literally getting my butt kicked.

About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. I am literally LMFAO. Hee, hee!

    PS: I’m glad you found that documentary. Sounds like the one I mentioned before. Hee, hee. Yes, still laughing. (You’re awfully good with the comedy!)

    • You should have seen the look in their eyes when the small humans were kicking me in the butt. LIke it was a party and I was their personal piñata. Like nothing could top this, ever. Rather shocking, really.

  2. elma

    Animals could teach us a lot more things than we think! Really too funny play with your daughters! How to make them clean their room is a huge issue? I could never get into the room of my eldest son as it was embarrassed when one of my youngest son was always clean. Here’s what my eldest son responded to a couple of friends but also my boss who told about his room: “the mess in the room is a mess in your head” the answer from my son was “and the vacuum in your desk is the emptiness in your head! “! My son who is very smart always said he could not work in a clean room and my boss was also smart enough to occupy high office (with a desk absolutely bare of any object or document).
    So do not doubt your intelligence and that of your daughters because it’s not the reason for the disorder and non-acceptance of the disorder 🙂
    Perhaps ordering tons of chocolate to get results …

    • Oh, Elma, I never doubt their intelligence, only my own.
      You son certainly had a snappy come-back. I hope my 11 year old doesn’t read this and get any ideas.
      Chocolate certainly does seem to help. And it makes me feel better, too. xoox

  3. So freaking funny! You need mom-conditioning. NO treats will be given by the mother after being bitten or kicked in the butt!

    Sheesh. I’ll bet the crow-mamas would have eaten ALL the kisses.

  4. well, if it takes two to tango it takes three to ? you have to admit it’s interesting. actually, you don’t have to admit anything.

  5. In a three-person tango, someone’s gonna get their feet stepped on. Is that what you mean? xoox

  6. i love the notion that crows are so smart. they get a bad rap. that said, i am always a little weirded out by the idea of all these animals having so much smarts–weirded out and hopeful. i don’t know how those two emotions come together. i need to think about that. but weirdness and hopefulness are dancing their own tango in my mind right now.

    thanks for that!

  7. ps. love the image above. who is the artist? do you know him? i need me some of that.

    • Hey, gabe– thanks for the comment.

      the artist is a crazy good illustrator named Chuck Groenink– he does children’s books, too, to answer a question you asked before. Click the image through to his Flickr page to see some of the spectacular stuff he does. He is genius.

      btw, love the new look of your blog and still chuckling about your manly moment at Point Reyes the other day.

  8. I find your work incredible. That post on Feminism – brilliantly written, it touched so many chords.
    And am thus nominating you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.
    Cheers 🙂

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