The joys and difficulties of making projects: man knows them well, our civilization has developed thanks to the ability to anticipate future needs and sacrifice today to get a reward tomorrow. We have long believed we were the only ones who know how to do it: a decade ago we discovered that even the great apes - chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos - know how to plan for the future.

Now the corvids are added to the list: the birds of this family know how to organize themselves to meet future needs, even when these are not immediate, and even in unusual and non-daily situations. It is therefore not an adaptation developed in response to a specific environmental requirement, but of an independently developed capacity in birds and hominids, whose evolutionary lines separated 320 million years ago.

The previous clues. Of the corvids we know that they are skilled instrumentalists and that, like man, they have the capacity for abstract thought. In 2007, a study by the University of Cambridge showed that jays (from the corvidae family) know how to stockpile food in places where they imagine they will find themselves hungry the next morning.

Some have interpreted it as a proof of the ability to make plans, but it presents weaknesses: it could be a specific adaptation related to food, and not a generalized skill.

The crow walking on the eagle Curiosity: flying taxi (the crow walking on the eagle). | Phoo Chan

To see more clearly, Mathias Osvath (University of Lund, Sweden), wanted to test the ability to "think ahead" of corvids in two non-everyday situations, such as the use of tools to open a box and barter situations with the man. The results of the study are published in Science.

I choose this (you never know …). In one experiment, some crows were instructed to open a box containing dog kibble with a stone. Then, they were placed in front of a series of tools to choose from, without the box being more visible. The birds were able to choose a tool and, 15 minutes later, they were put back in front of the box, but in a different place. The crows have chosen the right stone, and with that opened the container in 11 cases out of 14.

Barter. In a second case the birds have learned to exchange a token for a reward. Later they had to choose it again from a pile of other objects, keep it with them for 15 minutes and only then give it to the experimenter to receive the prize. The birds chose the right token in 143 cases out of 144. In 77% of the time they even managed to exchange it for the reward.

Born to program. Their ability has always been at the highest levels from the first trial onwards: it was not, therefore, only the force of habit. Their foresight worked in 90% of cases, even postponing gratification until 17 hours later. "The performance of crows is on a par with those of the great apes, " concludes Osvath: "they know how to make immediate decisions for a future that will happen elsewhere."