There is Nothing Common About Crows

by Joan Greene -- Published 10.15.2020 -- Tennessee Naturalist Program

Crow Photo by: Mabel Amer from Pixabay

One early autumn a murder (flock) of crows took over the big oak tree next to my driveway out front. The scene was perfect, rich hues of fallen leaves covered the ground and an abundant crop of acorns lay scattered on the drive. That year I had a long row of tall sunflowers bending toward the sky next to the fence that separated my lawn from my neighbor’s more pristine setting. They came in loud and brazen as if they had found new ground. The crows walked my yard in groups patrolling and looting under leaves for juicy grubs or earthworms and frankly, a nest of baby rabbits.

Some of “my” crows stayed behind and built a nest in a tall old tree out back and I witnessed firsthand their love of shiny objects. Their nest glittered here and there in the sun from bits of tin foil woven in with the sticks and natural building materials. Three of them seemed as if they were always there waiting for me to leave in the morning. They were often in the flower beds near the door as I came out to go for work. For as long as I lived in that house, I had crows.

The fall makes me think of crows for some reason. In the book, What is it Like to Be a Bird, David Allen Sibley says, “Crows are able to recognize us by our faces and they associate each person with good or bad experiences. Furthermore, they can communicate that information to other crows.

Those crows were the craftiest birds that I have ever encountered.  They seemed to be able to open the trash can lid, thus calling for bungie cording down the lids.  When I was carrying in groceries and left my open purse on the stoop, one even took the opportunity to go head first into my bag and carried away a watch that I had dropped inside.  So, I was not surprised when I started seeing so many articles this year about the intelligence of crows. 

Photo by: Photographer - Ronald Manley

What scholars are saying about crows:

Source: Science Magazine - by Amanda Heidt - June 8, 2020 (below)

Like humans, these big-brained birds may owe their smarts to long childhoods. Human beings typically don’t leave the nest until well into our teenage years—a relatively rare strategy among animals. But corvids—a group of birds that includes jays, ravens, and crows—also spend a lot of time under their parents’ wings. Now, in a parallel to humans, researchers have found that ongoing tutelage by patient parents may explain how corvids have managed to achieve their smarts.

Corvids are large, big-brained birds that often live in intimate social groups of related and unrelated individuals. They are known to be intelligent—capable of using tools, recognizing human faces, and even understanding physics—and some researchers believe crows may rival apes for smarts.

Compared with other birds, researchers have found corvids spend more time in the nest before fledging, more days feeding their offspring as adults, and more of their life living among family. The results, reported last week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, also confirm corvids have unusually large brains compared with many other birds. Birds need to be light for flight, but a raven’s brain accounts for almost 2% of its body mass, a value similar to humans.

Source: Science Magazine - by Susan Begley - September 24, 2020 (below)

Several articles in Science Magazine published at various times in 2020 seem to point to the fact that although it was previously believed that crows and other corvids do not have a cerebral cortex, but that they do.

Now the birds can add one more feather to their brainiac claims: Research unveiled on Thursday in Science Magazine finds that crows know what they know and can ponder the content of their own minds, a manifestation of higher intelligence and analytical thought long believed the sole province of humans and a few other higher mammals.”

Source: Science Magazine - Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt University - September 25, 2020 (below)

However, birds, and particularly corvids (such as ravens), are as cognitively capable as monkeys (1) and even great apes,” Suzana Herculano-Houzel.

John Marzluff, Professer, University of Washington, Author, The Gift of Crows (below)

“Exactly how the crow mind recognizes the opportunities we unwittingly provide is mostly an open question,” says University of Washington wildlife biologist John Marzluff, who has studied corvids and their behavior for more than 35 years. He’s collected countless stories over the decades about crows’ complex social lives, including how they play, deceive each other, hold “funerals” around their dead, and seemingly learn from one another—even banding together to mob humans who have somehow wronged one of their own. Marzluff has a knack for figuring out how to quantify these intriguing behaviors in rigorous scientific experiments. By testing how the birds remember, communicate, and learn, his team is gaining insights into why crows are so street-smart and how they manage to thrive in our world. “Being open to possibility is important, so that you don’t miss really interesting new things that nobody thought these birds could do,” Marzluff says.

“The crows in your neighborhood know your block better than you do. They know the garbage truck routes. They know which kids drop animal crackers and which ones throw rocks. They know the pet dogs, and they might even play with the friendly ones. If you feed them, they probably not only recognize you but your car as well, and they might just leave you trinkets in return. These birds live their lives intertwined with ours, carefully observing us even as most of us barely take note of them. That’s how they survive, and they’re good at it: In recent decades the American Crow has taken over our suburbs, and even moved into the hearts of our big cities. As we’ve reshaped the landscape, we’ve created an ideal environment for an animal that is canny and perceptive enough to exploit our riches,” John Marzluff

Finally, what would a story be without a fable?  It turns out that Aesop knew what he was talking about when he wrote the tale of the Crow and the Pitcher. A thirsty crow puts pebbles in the pitcher to get the water to raise so he can have a drink.  The Crow and Pitcher was first published in 1867.  Click here for a beautifully illustrated version from the Library of Congress.

Want to learn more about crows?

The Cornell Lab Bird Academy offers a course called:  Anything but Common: The Hidden Life of the American Crow.  This course qualifies for TNP-CE credit  - 2  TNP-CE credits.  If you have questions about CE Credits contact the TNP State Coordinator, Nancy Garden (ngarden@tnnaturalist.org).

For details about the course click https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/product/anything-but-common-the-hidden-life-of-the-american-crow/

Crow
Photograph by: Ronald Manley
Photographer Ronald Manley of Brentwood holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Penn State. His photographic interests are nature and astrophotography.

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