Most of us attribute intelligence to larger brained mammals like chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants. But how often do you considered avians? Crows are among the smartest creatures on the planet. They regularly use tools to reach food or lure animals towards roads where they will be hit by cars. They have regional “dialects” in their calls, indicating higher level communication. Crows can even recognize individual human faces and convey what you look like to other crows who have never seen you.
Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton, from the departments of Animal Behavior and Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University, claim that both crows and primates use a combination of mental tools, including imagination and the anticipation of possible future events, to solve problems.
The Crow and the Pitcher
The Crow and the Pitcher is one of Aesop’s Fables, which relates ancient observation of corvid behaviour that recent scientific studies have confirmed is goal-directed and indicative of causal knowledge rather than simply being due to instrumental conditioning.
A Crow, half-dead with thirst, came upon a Pitcher which had once been full of water; but when the Crow put its beak into the mouth of the Pitcher he found that only very little water was left in it, and that he could not reach far enough down to get at it. He tried, and he tried, but at last had to give up in despair. Then a thought came to him, and he took a pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped it into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. Then he took another pebble and dropped that into the Pitcher. At last, at last, he saw the water mount up near him, and after casting in a few more pebbles he was able to quench his thirst and save his life.
Little by little does the trick.
Not impressed? You should be. Crows are among the most adaptable species on the planet, changing their behavior rapidly and learning new skills on the fly. They are highly skilled at adapting to man made objects, and thrive near humans more so than anywhere else. A study in Singapore found that the preferred roost sites for Corvus splendens commonly known as the House Crow were in well-lit areas with a lot of human activity, close to food sources.
Migratory Patterns: Subject to change
Most birds have migratory patterns that are practically set in stone, but Crows have no qualms about altering a flight plan to ensure minimal casualties. Crows are known to change their entire migration pattern to avoid farms where even a single crow has been killed in the past. Generations upon generations later, they still remember specific houses where one measly bird has died.
Crows began using Chatham, Ontario as a pit stop along their migration route resulting in hundreds of thousands of birds taking refuge in the city. The farming community was devastated by the damage to its crops to the point where the mayor declared war on crows. The townspeople set out, hoping to bag at least 300,000 of the 600k birds currently ruining their livelihood. The day after the announcement was made, hunters went out and shot a single crow. Just one. After that, not another bird was killed since word spreads rapidly amongst crows.
I’m sure we’re all aware of how impressive it is that many great apes like Chimpanzees use sticks or blades of grass to gather and eat insects from difficult to reach places, but crows perform that same trick and much more, using only their beaks.
During an experiment in Oxford University, England researchers have discovered a female New Caledonian crow named Betty possessed remarkable proficiency for making tools using man made materials she had never before encountered.
Betty and another crow named Abel had to choose between a hooked and a straight wire for retrieving small pieces of food. Abel immediately took the hooked wire, so Betty bent the straight wire into a hook and used it to retrieve the food. This experiment was the first time the crows had been presented with wire.
In a Japanese city, crows have devised a method of cracking nuts they normally can’t open with their beaks by dropping the nuts onto busy roads allowing cars to run them over. They have even learned to wait for the light at cross walks to stop traffic so they can safely retrieve the cracked nut.
While many might view these birds as a pestilence (Thanks, Hitchcock) especially after fears of spreading disease or raiding crops, they could be a contender for man’s new best friend. Hacker and writer Joshua Klein is fascinated by crows and after a long amateur study of corvid behavior, has created an elegant machine that may form a new bond between animal and human. Using their intelligence to our advantage, crows could be used to perform any number of tasks if given proper training and respect.
Humans typically associate personality characteristics to more common house pets like dogs or cats, but Crows too seem to possess many unique characteristics in their behavior suggestive of a personality. Their behavior varies greatly between each bird with attributes of aggressive or quarrelsome behavior, intelligence, and sometimes even playful mischievous behavior. Don’t believe me? Just watch this crow orchestrate a fight between two (less intelligent) cats just for his own amusement or this crow, using a bottle cap to sled on a rooftop in Russia.