New Caledonian crows infer the weight of objects from observing their movements in a breeze

Humans use a variety of cues to infer an object’s weight, including how easily objects can be moved. For example, if we observe an object being blown down the street by the wind, we can infer that it is light. A team of scientists tested now whether New Caledonian crows make this type of inference. After training that only one type of object (either light or heavy) was rewarded when dropped into a food dispenser, birds observed pairs of novel objects (one light and one heavy) suspended from strings in front of an electric fan. The fan was either on—creating a breeze which buffeted the light, but not the heavy, object—or off, leaving both objects stationary. In subsequent test trials, birds could drop one, or both, of the novel objects into the food dispenser. Despite having no opportunity to handle these objects prior to testing, birds touched the correct object (light or heavy) first in 73% of experimental trials, and were at chance in control trials. These results suggest that birds used pre-existing knowledge about the behavior exhibited by differently weighted objects in the wind to infer their weight, using this information to guide their choices.

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