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Department of Psychology

Why are crows 'afraid' of unknown food and objects? 

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Dr Rachael Miller (Harrison), Researcher in the Department of Psychology, brings us an overview of the recently published paper in Current Biology

Our 10-lab international collaboration on the socio-ecological correlates of neophobia - i.e. responses to novelty - in corvids (members of the crow family) is out in Current Biology.

Neophobia impacts adaptability & survival, with inter- & intra-species variation. We tested 10 corvid species (241 subjects) using a novel object or novel food beside familiar food and looked at how long it took each individual to touch the familiar food in the presence of a novel item. We found individual repeatability across time (i.e. test rounds) and condition (i.e. novel object, novel food, control), indicating that this is a stable behavioural trait. We also found species differences & identified several drivers of neophobia, including urban habitat use, sociality, maximum flock size & caching (i.e. hiding food for later use). 

Object neophobia was lower in species using urban habitats, living in family groups, large flocks and specialised cachers, than those only using sub-urban/rural areas, territorial pairs, small flocks or moderate cachers, while only flock size influenced food neophobia. 

This study demonstrates potential for further collaborations to explore the evolution of avian cognition, and for the first time in corvids, identifies the socio-ecological correlates of neophobia, granting insight into the elements driving higher neophobic responses in this avian family.

By R. Miller (Harrison)


Photo: Eurasian jay and novel object, credit to Francesca Cornero


Video example trials: 



Miller et al. (2021) Socio-ecological correlates of neophobia in corvids. Current Biology 


Creative Commons License
The text in this work is by Dr Rachael Miller (Harrison), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.