Welcome to the elaborate, conflict-laden world of raven (Corvus corax) social dynamics!
Expanding on prior research demonstrating that ravens sometimes console fellow ravens who’ve been victims of aggression, researchers have now found that ravens who’ve been in conflicts often reconcile with their former opponents, the first time this behavior has been seen in birds.
In a study published this year in PloS ONE1, University of Vienna biologists Orlaith Fraser and Thomas Bugnyar found that reconciliation behavior does indeed occur between ravens who’ve had conflicts, particularly when the participants share a valuable relationship. While this sort of post-conflict kiss-and-make-up behavior is believed to play an important role in reducing stress and repairing relationships in primates and certain other mammals, it hadn’t been found in prior studies of birds, leading researchers to hypothesize that perhaps birds use different strategies to maintain social harmony or that reconciliation isn’t so important for birds, as their most important relationships are their pair bonds with mates, where they may be able to avoid significant conflicts in the first place.
Fraser and Bugnyar studied seven captive sub-adult ravens (who were too young to have formed pair bonds) for 13 months, measuring their behavior after a total of 197 aggressive conflicts (defined as incidents involving hitting, chasing or forced retreat). They then documented “affiliative behavior” (friendly interactions involving contact sitting, preening, beak-to-beak or beak-to-body touching) after each conflict, and compared it to the behavior occurring during neutral periods when no aggression had taken place.
They found that reconciliation (friendly contact occurring within 10 minutes of the end of the conflict) occurred after 37 of 197 conflicts and, in a significant majority of the cases, friendly interactions took place more quickly after a conflict than during the matched control period. Moreover, birds who were related or in “high value relationships” (pairs who had previously been observed to preen or sit in contact with one another) were more likely to reconcile. Interestingly, neither the sex-combination of the opponents nor the intensity of the conflict (measured by whether the birds hit each other and how many times a bird was chased or forced to retreat) impacted the likelihood of reconciliation.
The researchers did note that the behavior of ravens in the wild might differ from those in captivity, and that additional study would be needed to determine whether other factors, such as a history of food sharing, might also impact reconciliation behavior.
This study is significant in that it suggests that, through a convergent process and despite very different evolutionary histories, ravens have developed conflict resolution strategies that are similar to those employed by primates, reconciling with each other to preserve valuable relationships and reduce the chance of further discord.
This 2011 reconciliation research follows closely on the heels of a comparably-structured study2 that Fraser and Bugnyar published in 2010, also in PLoS ONE, establishing that ravens may possess a sense of empathy (yet another trait once thought to belong to humans alone, at least before evidence of empathy began turning up in primates and other animals).
In the 2010 study, Fraser and Bugnyar attempted to measure whether “bystander” ravens (those who’d witnessed but not been involved in an aggressive conflict) would console the conflict victim through “affiliations” (the same sort of friendly behavior – contact sitting, preening, beak-to-beak or beak-to-body touching – as was measured in the more recent “reconciliation” study).
This time, they studied 11 sub-adult and two adult ravens raised in captivity, reviewing behavior after a total of 152 conflicts and in matching control periods and finding that both spontaneous and solicited (that is, initiated by the victim) bystander affiliations were likely to occur after conflicts.
More specifically, they found that unsolicited bystander affiliations were more likely to occur after more intense conflicts as well as when the ravens were related or shared valuable relationships, factors which suggested to the researchers that the affiliations served a distress-alleviating, or consoling, function. Also, the bystanders generally had stronger ties to the victims than to the aggressors, leading the researchers to conclude that it was unlikely that the bystanders were either acting as proxies for the aggressor to try to repair relationship between the combatants or trying to protect themselves from redirected attacks from the victims.
Based on these findings, Fraser and Bugnyar concluded that the best explanation for the bystanders’ unsolicited friendly behavior was that they were acting to console and alleviate the distress of the victims. The summarized the significance of this as follows:
Consolation is a particularly interesting interaction because it implies a cognitively demanding degree of empathy, known in humans as ‘sympathetic concern’. In order for a bystander to console a victim, they must first recognize that the victim is distressed and then act appropriately to alleviate that distress, requiring a sensitivity to the emotional needs of others previously attributed only to humans.
While the researchers noted some caveats, including the fact that study didn’t attempt to record vocalizations and that research on ravens in the wild was still necessary, they concluded that “the findings of this study … suggest that ravens may be responsive to the emotional needs of others.”
So, before you leave, here’s a multiple choice test regarding the moral of this story:
- Ravens are super smart, just like crows, nutcrackers, magpies and other corvids.
- We keep finding more and more ways in which other animals are able to do “uniquely human” things.
- If you plan on having an argument with a raven, you should make sure you bring all your raven buddies with you for support.
- All of the above.
1Fraser, O., & Bugnyar, T. (2011). Ravens Reconcile after Aggressive Conflicts with Valuable Partners PLoS ONE, 6 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018118.
2Fraser, O., & Bugnyar, T. (2010). Do Ravens Show Consolation? Responses to Distressed Others PLoS ONE, 5 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010605.