Image: John Watson

Ornithologist Nicola Clayton: ‘I loved birds and I wanted to move like one’

The corvid expert on how she noticed the birds’ unique intelligence and memory skills
September 8, 2022

Can animals plan for the future? Can they recall the past? Is a bird as clever as a chimpanzee or a toddler? These are the questions that occupy cognitive scientist and psychologist Nicola Clayton. Inside a nondescript building behind a thatched pub in Madingley, a village outside Cambridge, a flock of crows might give her an answer. One of them, a Eurasian jay named Hoy, blows kisses, while Hoy’s friend Romero says: “I love you.”

These birds live in Clayton’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory—the so-called “corvid palace”—which is home to 25 jays and seven rooks, all members of the corvidae or crow family, which includes ravens, magpies, jackdaws and common crows. Clayton, 59, who is the professor of comparative cognition at Cambridge, has been observing and hand rearing the birds, in a world-renowned study of 22 years that has transformed understanding of animal cognition.

Corvids are known for their intelligence, self-awareness and ability to use tools. Clayton’s research has revolutionised our understanding of animal intelligence, showing that some species of birds can be as intelligent as great apes or even human children.

Clayton, who is petite with grey-blue eyes and feathered blonde hair, has gained the nickname “queen of the corvids” from the media. She has been fascinated by birds since she was a child. “I became a bird nerd and was very interested in bird watching… I spent many summers helping out at my local RSPB centre.

“I was particularly interested in corvids,” she tells me, “because I got the sense that they really do follow your gaze, really interact with people and recognise them in a way that seemed unusual.” Clayton has proved that corvids are capable of “mental time travel”—they can remember the past and make sophisticated plans for the future—a trait previously thought to be exclusive to humans.

Her interest in birds led to another passion: dance. “I loved birds, and I wanted to move like one,” she says. After taking lessons in her youth, Clayton became involved with the Rambert Dance Company in 2009, first as a collaborator and now as its first “scientist-in-residence.” She has also taught salsa dancing for a number of years and is often pictured in tango trousers.

Clayton has proved that corvids can remember the past and make plans for the future

Clayton and Clive Wilkins, writer and artist-in-residence at Cambridge’s psychology department, co-founded the Captured Thought, a collaborative art project that explores how people think through the medium of dance and magic. 

Corvids even connect Clayton and her husband, the senior cognitive lecturer Nathan Emery. The pair met in California at a surprise party for her birthday, which Emery shares (he is nine years younger). He had written a paper explaining that primates are special because they can follow gaze in a way that other animals cannot. He asked Clayton to comment on it; for every example that cited primates as unique, she came up with a bird example that disproved it. “He was absolutely fascinated,” she tells me, “and amazed by how interactive corvids are… we talked about starting to work together.” 

The result of this first of many collaborations was a paper published in 2001 on their shared birthday, 22nd November, in Nature. It concluded that jays who had stolen from other birds would re-hide their own caches if they thought they had been watched. “We argued that this is a kind of theory of mind, being able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, and think about the future.” In another review paper for Science, the pair argued that jays and other crows were as clever as apes.

This spring, Clayton’s corvid palace was threatened with closure, after its funding from the European Research Council dried up after Brexit. But public outcry from the scientific community—including an open letter signed by 358 academics—turned the tide: the appeal raised more than half a million pounds. For at least the next five years, the palace of the feathered apes is safe.