• Traditional attempts to understand the evolution of human cognition compare humans with other primates.

  • This research showed that relative brain size covaries with cognitive skills, while adaptations that buffer the developmental and energetic costs of large brains (e.g. allomaternal care), and ecological or social benefits of cognitive abilities, are critical for their evolution.

  • To understand the drivers of cognitive adaptations, it is profitable to consider distant lineages with convergently evolved cognitions.

  • Here, we examine the facilitators of cognitive evolution in corvid birds, where some species display cultural learning, with an emphasis on family life.

  • We propose that extended parenting (protracted parent–offspring association) is pivotal in the evolution of cognition: it combines critical life-history, social and ecological conditions allowing for the development and maintenance of cognitive skillsets that confer fitness benefits to individuals.

  • This novel hypothesis complements the extended childhood idea by considering the parents’ role in juvenile development.

  • Using phylogenetic comparative analyses, we show that corvids have larger body sizes, longer development times, extended parenting and larger relative brain sizes than other passerines.

  • Case studies from two corvid species with different ecologies and social systems highlight the critical role of life-history features on juveniles’ cognitive development: extended parenting provides a safe haven, access to tolerant role models, reliable learning opportunities and food, resulting in higher survival.

  • The benefits of extended juvenile learning periods, over evolutionary time, lead to selection for expanded cognitive skillsets.

  • Similarly, in our ancestors, cooperative breeding and increased group sizes facilitated learning and teaching.

  • Our analyses highlight the critical role of life-history, ecological and social factors that underlie both extended parenting and expanded cognitive skillsets.

  • This article is part of the theme issue ‘Life history and learning: how childhood, caregiving and old age shape cognition and culture in humans and other animals’.

The impact of learning opportunities on the development of learning and decision-making: an experiment with passerine birds

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