Guess How Smart Crows Are

You have “zero” guesses. (Zero is a hint.)

Carrion crow (Corvus corone) black bird perched on branch and looking at camera
The Crowbonacci Sequence

It would be nice if one day animals could rule. Humans could do things for them — get them snacks, make sure their beds are soft, kill each other for their entertainment. But animals would be the ones in charge. I’m not sure if taxes would exist in this reality, and likely a benefit of the animal world would be that they did not, but if taxes did exist it seems like crows might be particularly suited to be sort of an “accountant” animal. Actually, even if taxes didn’t exist they could be an accountant. “How many taxes do we have to pay this year?” the parrot would ask the crow. “ZERO!” the crow would tell the parrot, accurately.

Yes, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Tübingen in Germany, crows are able to comprehend the concept of zero. Crows were already known to be quite intelligent: in possession of sensory consciousness, and the ability to distinguish quantities. But the study showed that along with things like “one” and “two” and “three,” crows possessed a specific neuron that fired when they were presented with “zero.”

In the study, the quantities were shown with dots, and with each test the crows were shown two displays of dot quantities between zero and four. The crows were trained to determine if the displays matched or did not match, while researchers studied their brain activity. When the crows were shown zero dots, their brains fired a never-before-seen-by-researchers neuron. A zero neuron.

Did the crows make mistakes with the dots? How dare you for asking and of course. Usually the mistake was that they confused zero dots with one dot. Co-author Andreas Nieder told IFL Science, via My Modern Met, “This effect [would only be] expected if … crows can understand the empty set as the smallest numerical value on the number line.”

Very smart. Smarter than I am, if I can be honest. I failed numerous math classes in my life. Often I wouldn’t even study because I knew I was going to fail anyway. I hope I don’t have to be a crow’s assistant in the future. I would be much better at assisting someone else, like maybe a worm. I could help them dig, or whatever they need.