They’re Loud, They’re Large, They’re Everywhere, So What’s So Special About Crows?

American Crow: Digging through the grass litter looking for food.
American Crow digging through the grass litter looking for food.

“If people wore feathers and wings, very few would be clever enough to be crows.” – Henry Ward Beecher

The other day I dumped the last chunk of suet from a feeder in order to put in a fresh cake.  The following day snow fell and covered the leftover suet, but an American Crow still unearthed it. That’s not what impressed me – what impressed me was watching what the crow did with it. After picking up the relatively large chunk of suet, the crow flew to a neighbor’s garage and buried it in the snow covered rain gutter. Once satisfied it was hidden, it returned and searched the area where it found the first morsel. I watched the crow return to its buried lunch, feast, and then return to my yard again looking for more scraps. The bird had only cached its original find for a minute or two as other crows descended on the neighbors roof, but it was interesting to watch the crow gather, store, and then explore an area it knew was productive.

Over the past 6-9 months I’ve become more and more fascinated with crows. It’s a common species that gets dismissed rather quickly without much thought. But because they’re common, they’re also readily available to watch and their abundance alone makes them worthy of study – a species that has found a niche in the natural world and has learned to thrive within said niche.

After looking through Peter Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, I was surprised to find that caching food is a frequent trait of crows. How many crows have I seen in my lifetime and never noticed this behavior? Besides caching food, Dunne notes that crows are known to pirate food and will dine on migrant-exhausted passerines. They are also known to drop nuts on hard surfaces in order to crack them open (and contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence they use roadways with the intention of having cars run them over).

As I started to do some more research, I was shocked to learn that crows hold funerals for their own……well, sort of. Tony Angell, co-author of Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, has witnessed first hand a crow funeral. At a corner where a crow was struck by a car, Angell witnessed groups of crows, numbering eight to twelve birds each, land and circle their deceased comrade. Over a 20 minute period, around 100 crows paid their respects. So what is truly going on here? Are the crows really holding their own funeral? The truth is a lot more complex – and why you should consider crows in a new light.

Angell theorizes on their actions: “It’s very likely that the crows are learning from this experience. Is there danger here? Is there territory now opened up with the death of this crow? Is there a mate available, where before, there wasn’t? So all kinds of things are learned.”

And American Crows are not the only crows to strut their stuff when it comes to intelligence. Researchers have recently found that another member of the Corvidae family, the New Caledonian Crow – endemic to New Caledonia, have human-like powers of inference – a behavior previously observed only in humans. Instead of me rehashing the entire story, click here for more info: Crows have human-like powers of inference, study says. This research is inline with what David Allen Sibley has found. In his book “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior,” Sibley writes that “in some psychological test crows have performed as well as monkeys.”

In another study (link below), New Caledonian Crows were given a problem; a beaker of water held a piece of food, but the water was not high enough for the crows to reach. Not to be denied a meal, the crows dropped nearby objects into the beaker thereby raising the water level and collecting the food. But that’s not all; the crows routinely picked up and put down the lighter items in order to place the heavier ones in the beaker. The crows learned that the heavier items would raise the water level more and require less work in order to reach their reward. This level of problem solving is on par with that of 7 year old child!

140326-crow-jms-1757_19952f9c69a90ec17ac1dcfad11378ff_nbcnews-ux-640-360
New Caledonian Crow: Solving a puzzle as well as the average 7 year old.

What I’ve referenced above is only a small smattering of some of the things that make crows a truly remarkable bird. The next time you’re out birding it up and come across a crow, stop and take a minute or two to observe it’s behavior and reflect on its intelligence – get to know the bird, not just ID it.

Bird It Up!

For more information, click on one of the links below:

Crows Solve Aesop’s Fable Puzzles, Offer Clues to Cognition

On the Cognition of Crows and Ravens: Contemporary Research into Nature’s Brightest Minds

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4 thoughts on “They’re Loud, They’re Large, They’re Everywhere, So What’s So Special About Crows?”

  1. I tend to disagree with the statement “This level of problem solving is on par with that of 7 year old child!” Not sure most people could figure it out, let alone a 7 year old. (Said with tongue-in-cheek)

    Liked by 1 person

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