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caption: A raven’s brain is literally the size of a walnut. But the ratio between the size of a raven’s brain and it’s body is one of the largest of any bird in the world.
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A raven’s brain is literally the size of a walnut. But the ratio between the size of a raven’s brain and it’s body is one of the largest of any bird in the world.
Credit: NH53/via flickr

The brain of the raven

Being a “bird brain” is a complement if you’re talking about ravens. They are smart. Their intelligence allows them to empathize and read emotions, which helps them survive. But it’s their ability to manipulate others, and even plan for the future that allows them to really thrive in the wild.

Growing up in England, I was used to seeing ravens in the Lake District and up in Scotland. But I didn't give them much thought until I was in my mid 20’s working on a grizzly bear research project in the Canadian Rockies. Here they took on a whole new meaning because whenever you hear a raven in grizzly country, it could mean a grizzly is around. Ravens eat grizzly bear kills….and usually get pretty noisy about it.

My job at the time was to look for grizzly kills to find out what they’d been eating. So the ravens became my allies in that search, but also made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck because the ravens were telling me there might be a grizzly bear around.

Today, scientists are learning that ravens, and other members of the crow family have some very advanced cognitive abilities. ‘If there's one thing I've learned about these birds, is to stop being surprised by them,’ Dr Kaeli Swift from the University of Washington told me. ‘So at this point, I'm just kind of an open door. And if someone's like, Hey, did you know ravens are better at calculus than you? I'd probably be like, Okay. ‘

Their bird brain is something quite remarkable, it’s capable of love, deceit, and even planning for the future, stuff that rivals the great apes. Some say they have the intelligence of a 7 year old human child!

In this episode, we’re going to look at exactly what's going on between the ears of a raven, and how this highly evolved brain helps them thrive.

Recommended links from Chris Morgan:

Mathias Osvath's TED talk

Kaeli Swift's TED talk

THE WILD is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan and Wildlife Media. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. It is hosted, produced and written by Chris Morgan. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker.