An Ode to Crows—the Ultimate Birdbrains

When George RR Martin nicknamed the men of the Night’s Watch (I’m talking about Game of Thrones—if you don’t know, you better ask somebody!) “crows,” I bet it wasn’t merely because they’re cloaked in black. I like to think it’s because, like the birds themselves, they get a bad rap, but most people don’t know how awesome they really are.

I feel the same way about Jon Snow, Sam, Benjen Stark, and Lord Commander Jeor Mormont as I do about crows: they’re dynamic and worthy of respect. But thanks to Hitchcock, the birds have been vilified as scavengers and omens of death. I mean, a group or flock of them is called a “murder of crows.” That’s dark!

I ask you to set aside your biases about crows for now because I swear they are so cool. They mate for life, can live for 20 years, and are very intuitive and communicative—with one another and with humans. I read a funny anecdote the other day:

“I was walking home and discovered a dead crow in the middle of the street, most likely hit by a vehicle. I couldn’t bear to see it destroyed even further, so I came back with a shovel and gently moved it off to the grassy shoulder. His ‘friends and family’ were quite vocal and hung close by.  All I could do was say ‘sorry about your friend.’ Crazy, but I think they understood … and they became quiet.” —Susan and Ron Runyan

It’s funny because I like anthropomorphizing animals, too. There’s a rumor that crows mourn their comrades. But according to findings from a study published in the journal Animal Behaviour, crows causing a ruckus over a fallen “friend” is more likely an alert to other crows of danger. So, what the Runyans must have witnessed above was the birds cawing to one another: ‘There’s a human with a dead crow! They might be dangerous!’ And then they probably quieted down when they realized the person wasn’t a threat. Maybe not as extraordinary as the idea that they hold funerals, but still a neat sign of crows’ intuition.

In another study from the University of Washington, wildlife biologist John M. Marzluff found that crows remembered the masked faces of researchers who had captured (and released) them; for years, any time the crows spotted these masks, they scolded and dive-bombed the researchers wearing them. (And the birds left researchers in Dick Cheney masks, who never handled them during the study, alone.)

OK, does the crow’s ability to recognize human faces make them even spookier? Well, what about the way some species have forward-facing eyes that make them look almost human? Am I making it harder to not be creeped out by crows?

Well, for the New Caledonian crow, forward-facing eyes give them great depth perception, making this particular species well-adapted to using tools—they’ve been observed using sticks to extract prey from holes in deadwood (and have also been able to solve problems that five-year-old children couldn’t). Very recently, scientists tested the tool-using prowess of the Hawaiian crow—also known as ‘Alalā, which have been extinct in the wild—since they, like the New Caledonians, also have forward-facing eyes and unusually straight bills. Turns out Hawaiian crows are just as dexterous as their distant relatives. This is huge because there are very few animals that have been known to use tools, and pretty much all of them are mammals: chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, to name a few.

So, call me a birdbrain (it’s obviously a compliment), but are crows cool or what?

Illustration by: John Gerrard Keulemans


2 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve been watching YouTube videos on crow and raven intelligence; they are amazing! We have a couple of parrots that are phenomenal… language-comprehension-wise. 🙂

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