Cambridge lab for clever birds saved from closure by...

Cambridge lab for clever birds saved from closure by public donations


The “corvid palace”, a renowned UK centre for research on intelligence in crows and their kin that was due to be shut down this month, has been saved by a campaign kick-started by a New Scientist article


22 July 2022

By Alison George

Two rooks in an aviary

Two rooks at the Comparative Cognition Lab

Francesca M. Cornero/University of Cambridge

A centre for research on bird intelligence at the University of Cambridge has been saved from closure by a campaign kick-started by a New Scientist article, which raised £500,000 from public donations in a matter of weeks. Together with support from the university, the campaign has secured the facility’s immediate future.

In May, we reported on the race to rehome the 25 jays and seven rooks in Nicola Clayton’s Comparative Cognition Lab, which was facing closure in July due to Brexit and pandemic-related funding difficulties.

The report prompted Jonathan Birch at the London School of Economics to write an open letter calling on the university to reconsider the closure of the lab and to give the facility long-term support. “The international significance of the lab is hard to overstate and its closure would be a terrible loss to the sciences of mind and brain,” says Birch.

The letter quickly attracted signatures from 358 leading academics, including Eva Jablonka, Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky. Donations from the public to support the lab also rolled in, totalling £500,000, which will keep the facility running for the next five years.

“I’ve been overwhelmed in the most positive way by the support from the University of Cambridge, fellow academics and the general public from all walks of life,” says Clayton. “Every penny I’m so grateful for. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster, with a heart-warming, positive ending.”

The facility, founded 22 years ago by Clayton, has been key to understanding the cognition of corvids – members of the crow family. Its research has shown how these birds have abilities once thought to be the domain of only humans and great apes, such as understanding the minds of others and mental time travel – reflecting on the past and planning for the future.

For Clayton, the closure of the lab was personal, not least because she and her team had hand-reared the birds from chicks and invested years to ensure they were willing and happy participants in the research. “It has to be this place where the birds really want to work with us and fly over when we call them,” she says. “If you want to have a window into how these birds think, you need to have their trust and respect.” This close, long-term relationship between the birds and the researchers meant that the facility couldn’t easily be set up elsewhere.

“This really is fantastic news,” says Eva Jablonka at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “It is extremely important that the research in this unique centre continues. There is a dearth of research on comparative cognition, and Clayton’s lab, which has unique facilities and irreplaceable animals, had already added a great deal to our understanding of the minds of corvids (and minds more generally), opened up new research questions about animals’ intelligence, imagination, memory and sociality.”

Clayton already has ambitious ideas for future research with the corvids. “We’ve got lots of plans for the work we want to do,” she says. “There are many unanswered questions about mental time travel, from source memory – for example, how do you know that you remember [something]: did you see it or hear it? – to thinking about the future. Plus, we want to investigate how the birds respond to mirrors, and carry out studies on cognitive illusions using magic.”

Work will also continue on a unique study of how birds understand language. An 18-year-old rook named Leo, for example, has already demonstrated an excellent understanding of the command “wait”, says Clayton.

But rooks can live for perhaps 80 years, so she is hopeful that more funding will be forthcoming, to keep the facility going for longer than five years. “Working with these long-lived, clever birds is a long-term project,” she says. “You can’t just stop and start.”

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