Crow Intelligence: A Philosophical and Ethical Inquiry

In the the animal kingdom intelligence manifests in myriad forms across diverse creatures. This post, inspired by Real Science’s video “Why Crows Are as Smart as 7 Year Old Humans,” explores the Corvid family, particularly crows, whose intelligence often surpasses that of seven-year-old children. We delve into their cognitive abilities, problem-solving skills, tool use, and capacity for future planning, along with the philosophical, moral, and ethical implications of such intelligence.


This analysis explores the remarkable intelligence of crows, their cognitive abilities that often surpass those of seven-year-old children, and the philosophical, moral, and ethical implications of these findings. + Real Science’s video.

The Intelligence of Crows

Crows, or more generally, corvids, are known for their mischievous, playful, and highly intelligent nature. They exhibit remarkable problem-solving skills, often using tools to forage and solve complex problems. For instance, they drop nuts on roads for cars to crack and then pick them up safely using pedestrian lights. They can recognize faces and hold grudges against individuals who have been rude to them for several years. Their problem-solving skills are so advanced that they rival those of a seven-year-old human.

Tool Use and Problem Solving

Corvids, especially the New Caledonian crow, have demonstrated exceptional abilities in problem-solving and tool use. In a 2014 study, these crows were presented with various tubes filled with water and a treat floating on top. The crows demonstrated an understanding of the concept of displacement by dropping rocks into the water-filled tube to raise the water level and reach the treat. They also showed the ability to differentiate between sinking and floating objects, choosing the sinking ones to reach the treat faster.

Planning for the Future

Recent studies suggest that crows might be capable of planning for the future, a high-order skill that requires memory of the past and foresight for future events. In a study published in 2020, New Caledonian crows were shown one of three puzzle boxes that they already knew how to open, each requiring a specific tool. The researchers discovered that not only did the birds choose the correct tool that would open the corresponding puzzle box, but they would remember to bring the tool with them into the test area.

Why Are Crows So Intelligent?

The question remains as to why crows evolved such intelligence. One theory suggests that it has to do with the way they are raised. Unlike other species, corvids spend more time with their parents. This extended parenting time allows skills to be transmitted vertically, from parent to offspring. The family groups of many species of crow can be very tight, with young crows even helping to defend their parents’ new nest of babies.

The Philosophical Implications of Crow Intelligence

The intelligence of crows, a topic that has fascinated scientists and philosophers alike, offers a profound perspective on the nature of cognition and consciousness. The cognitive abilities of these birds, particularly their problem-solving skills and capacity for future planning, not only rival but often surpass those of seven-year-old human children. This part delves into the philosophical implications of such intelligence, exploring the ethical and moral considerations that arise in our interactions with these sentient beings.

In the realm of philosophy, intelligence is often viewed as a cornerstone of consciousness, a marker of self-awareness and autonomy. The cognitive abilities of crows, as demonstrated in numerous scientific studies, challenge our traditional anthropocentric view of intelligence. Their problem-solving skills, tool use, and capacity for future planning suggest a level of consciousness that demands our philosophical attention.

Crows, with their ability to solve complex problems, demonstrate a form of intelligence that transcends mere instinct. They exhibit an understanding of cause and effect, a grasp of abstract concepts, and an ability to learn from experience. These traits, traditionally associated with human intelligence, raise profound philosophical questions about the nature of cognition and consciousness.

The Moral and Ethical Considerations

The intelligence of crows brings to the fore important moral and ethical considerations. If crows possess a level of intelligence that rivals that of human children, what does this imply about our ethical obligations towards them? The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously argued that we have a duty to treat all rational beings as ends in themselves, not merely as means to our ends. If crows exhibit a form of rationality, does this not imply that we have a moral duty to treat them with respect and consideration?

Moreover, the intelligence of crows challenges the anthropocentric view that humans are the sole bearers of moral worth. If crows possess a form of consciousness, if they are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, then they too should be considered moral subjects. This perspective calls for a radical rethinking of our relationship with these sentient beings, urging us to treat them not as mere objects of scientific curiosity, but as beings with inherent moral worth.

The intelligence of crows, as demonstrated by their problem-solving skills and capacity for future planning, necessitates a deeper exploration of our moral and ethical obligations towards these creatures. This is not a straightforward task, as it requires us to reassess our anthropocentric perspectives and consider a broader, more inclusive view of intelligence and consciousness.

From a utilitarian perspective, which advocates for the greatest good for the greatest number, the cognitive abilities of crows could be seen as a call for their inclusion in our moral community. If crows are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, and if they demonstrate a level of intelligence that rivals that of human children, then their welfare should be considered in our ethical calculations. This could mean, for instance, reconsidering practices that cause harm to crows, such as certain forms of pest control or habitat destruction.

From a rights-based perspective, the intelligence of crows, among the intelligence of other animals, could be seen as grounds for attributing to them certain basic rights. Philosophers such as Tom Regan argue that all beings who are “subjects-of-a-life”—that is, beings with beliefs, desires, memory, and a sense of the future—have inherent value and are entitled to basic rights. If crows meet these criteria, then they too should be granted such rights, including the right to life and the right to freedom from harm.

From an environmental ethics perspective, the intelligence of crows could be seen as further evidence of the intricate complexity and value of our natural world. This perspective urges us to respect and protect all forms of life, not just because of their utility or intelligence, but because they are part of the interconnected web of life. In this view, our ethical obligations extend to entire ecosystems, including the intelligent crows that inhabit them.

However, these perspectives also raise challenging questions. If we acknowledge the intelligence of crows and extend moral and ethical considerations to them, where do we draw the line? Should all animals be granted similar considerations? And if so, how do we balance these considerations with other ethical obligations, such as those towards our fellow humans?

These questions do not have easy answers, but they are worth grappling with. As we continue to learn more about the intelligence of crows and other animals, we must also strive to develop a more nuanced, compassionate, and inclusive ethical framework—one that respects and values all forms of intelligence and consciousness.


The intellectual capabilities of crows, demonstrably on par with or even exceeding the cognitive faculties of young human children, thrust us into a philosophical maze that calls into question our long-held assumptions about what intelligence really is, how consciousness manifests itself in different beings, and what value we assign to different forms of life in terms of ethical and moral considerations. As we confront this conundrum, we find ourselves facing an urgent imperative to reevaluate and perhaps amend our ethical framework, compelling us to accord these remarkably sentient birds the dignity, respect, and humane treatment that their cognitive achievements warrant.

As we persist in expanding our understanding of the truly astonishing intellectual world of these feathered creatures, we ought to do so with minds that are not only open but also deeply reflective, fully aware of the far-reaching and possibly game-changing philosophical ramifications that such revelations could have for our understanding of intelligence and morality across species.

The video


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