Of all the families of birds out there, corvids are the most intellectually dynamic family of birds. Crows, ravens, jays, jackdaws, rooks, and magpies are all corvids. Logic, awareness, tool use, trickery, creativity, have been extensively studied in these birds. Witnesses have documented these birds exhibiting playfulness, love, joy, heartache, jealousy, gratitude, and a fascination of shiny objects. All the above mentioned are facets of humanity. How are corvids so eerily similar to us in behavior and intellectual prowess, when we’re not even remotely related on the tree of life?
The last ancestor we shared lived over 300 million years ago, a sprawling reptilian creature called paleothyris. In the evolutionary tree, these creatures eventually split off in two different directions, the sauropsida group which are the dinosaurs, reptiles and birds. And the synapsida group which gave rise to mammals. The corvid family and us humans are so far from being related and yet we act so much alike.
The scientifically minded are cautious of noticing anthropomorphic traits in animals. Naturally, we humans want to see aspects of ourselves in animals. Which is something I agree with; we should be cautious of always assigning human behavior to wildlife. We shouldn’t make the mistake to think that an animal such as a reclusive lynx is lonely, just because it chooses to live most of it’s life alone, away from others of its own kind except to mate. Unlike wolves, evolution has designed the lynx to be successful solo hunters. Lynx don’t feel the same drive to socialize with one another as much as humans. Too many lynx in the same area would upset the prey population, which would harm their own survival. So perhaps assigning a human emotion of loneliness to a lynx wouldn’t be accurate.
At the same time, it would be wrong to think that higher reasoning, love, curiosity and tool creation are exclusive for humans alone. These methods of survival and social living are gifts from nature, for other species such as elephants, dolphins, and birds. This is the beauty of convergent evolution; two unrelated species evolve similar methods to survive in an environment. For example, dolphins evolved echolocation to navigate and find fish in murkier waters. Bats evolved echolocation to help pinpoint prey and find their way in the dark. Echolocation is a tool nature had evolve in two completely different species. Corvids just so happened to develop all of these mental and emotional capabilities we humans experience.
Unfortunately I’ve never had the chance to witness a corvid solve a puzzle, or perform acts of kindness. Nothing that could fill an entire blog anyway. I have collected many of these accounts over the years from watching nature documentaries, reading books, listening to birders, and accounts from fellow friends.
Corvids are people watchers, they study us with a calculating curiosity. Ravens are aware of human body language and intention and will observe where a human is looking and will often take off to check out the spot, hopeful the human was staring at a food source.
Scrub jays are excellent at prioritizing. These birds are clearly aware of how their different types of food degrades overtime. Of the nuts, seeds, insects and worms they cache, they will always consume the worms and insects first since those are the first foods to perish. They will only consume their seed and nut stores once their perishable food has already been eaten.
Tool use seems quite rare and extraordinary in nature as there are only a few known species who craft and use tools. Dolphins are tool users as they cover their muzzles with soft sponges to protect themselves from scraping their faces on abrasive objects and from getting stung as they nose around the sea floor in search of food. Apes are widely known using sticks to dig insects out of tight spaces.
There have been many experiments of captive crows using sticks and stones to get a treat. For example, a narrow tube with a tasty floating grub was placed before a crow. The cylinder was only filled partway with water and the crow could see the grub floating inside yet out of reach of his beak. The crow figured out water displacement by dropping stones in a narrow tube to raise the water level. He quickly found out that larger pebbles would make the water rise faster and ignored the small pebbles entirely, dropping only the larger ones in. Once the grub was in reach of his beak, he recovered his reward.
I know most of these accounts are about crows and ravens, and this is because more studies have been documented about these birds. However bluejays are tool users too! Captive bluejays have been observed ripping up pieces of newspaper which they twist into a wad with their feet and beak. Food pellets are placed just beyond reach of the caged corvid, and keeping their eyes on the prize, they use the wad of newspaper to rake the pellets into their cage. These bluejays were never shown how to perform this, and I can’t help but wonder how many times bluejays make tools in the wild and are just never witnessed.
Captive corvids are one thing, however completely wild crows have also been witnessed making tools. Most famously a species called the new caledonian crow. These crows will select a mailable twig. clip it with their beak to the length needed, and bend it into a hook to reach at insects within crevices.
This account comes from our very own, Michael Douglas. He became familiar with a pair of bonded crows in his area. We all know that teamwork makes the dream work and this couple of dark love birds were just meant for each other. The duo would locate a robin’s nest and came up with a plan. One crow would perch deliberately in sight of the adult robins to keep their attention on him. While the robins were distracted in trying to lure the male crow away from the nest, the female would sneak in and take the robin hatchlings for her and her mate to devour.
It sounds cruel but it is no different than dolphins eating fish, or wolves hunting a deer. It is due to the additional fat and protein intake meat provides, that has allowed corvids and humans to become so smart. Our brains require at least 25% of energy to function, and the added nutrition from meat has supplied us that extra energy.
Speaking of wolves, ravens have been observed following packs of wolves as they roam. A raven’s beak is primarily used for pecking and pinching, not slicing open meat like a mouthful of fangs can do. The wolves take down their prey and eat away the flesh, which opens up for the ravens to come in and tear off meat. Having the food already torn open by the wolves is much easier than if the raven had to peck through the hide on their own. And the wolves know to follow the ravens as well as these birds purposely lead them to dead animals. Not only are corvids capable of teamwork among themselves, but with other species as well.
A crow, knowing she is being watched, goes through the motions of burying a morsel. Meanwhile some crows perched nearby, feign interest in something else in an attempt not to seem obvious. They wait until she’s out of sight, before descending on the spot. Squabbling amongst themselves, they attempt to uncover what they think is a bit of food only to find nothing and that they’ve been tricked. Meanwhile the trickster has successfully stashed her real food in private; safe and sound.
Bluejays are also tricksters. When a bird feeder gets too crowded, bluejays will often imitate the call of a hawk. Once the other birds have scattered away in fear, the bluejay lands on the feeder to eat leisurely. Such brats! But I love them anyway.
Gratitude and Gifting
Awhile back, I read of a woman’s account with crows on her lunch break, and I just had to share this story because it delights me so.
A lady went outside for lunch one fine day and noticed a small flock of glossy crows hanging around a trash can. They were strutting about and pecking at a discarded to-go box, making a few attempts to open it. The woman stopped by, took the carton out of the trash and popped the lid open. She then sat down at the picnic table nearby and proceeded to enjoy her lunch. Once she was at a safe distance, the crows eagerly descended on the now exposed, half eaten salad. Four would be at the salad to pick at it, while four more would be in a tree to keep watch. The teams of four took turns, rotating to eat and to keep watch. She noticed as they ate, the crows would often look up to watch her.
Once they seemed to have had their fill, all eight crows flocked together in the nearby tree and cawed for awhile. It was then that one crow in particular picked out a grape from the discarded salad, and flew over to one of the other picnic tables next to her. Both the woman and the crow observed one another for a moment and much to her amazement, the crow flew over and landed on the edge of the very table she was sitting at. With some nervous steps forward, the crow quickly dropped the grape before her and looked up. The woman being awestruck, yet remembering her manners, picked up the grape and ate it. Once he saw her eat it, the crow took off.
Had the crows come together in that tree to discuss something? Either way, that one individual felt a duty to thank the woman. To show his gratitude, he shared his meal with her.
There are many other accounts of people feeding crows and then the crows returning with gifts. These people report gifts of buttons, pieces of colored glass, bottle caps, lost earrings, nails, feathers, coins, colored plastic, and anything else shiny. One little girl in Washington has a collection like this in a display case. She has been going out to refill the bird feeders for years and the neighborhood crows have been bringing her all sorts of items they think humans like.
Crows have hobbies too don’tcha know? This story is from 1898, published in a book called Wild Animals I have Known by the naturalist, Ernest Selon-Thompson. The author had become familiar with an individual crow with a unique white spot on his cheek. Ernest called this crow Silver Spot.
One day, he noticed his crow friend was scratching at the ground and pulling white objects up with his beak. Ernest watched as Silver Spot uncovered white pebbles, a bead, clam shells, pieces of tin, and what must have been his most prized item, a broken handle from a white tea cup. Once everything was uncovered, the crow flipped the items over multiple times, eyeing them intently. The crow would pick up each item at a time to play with it, orientate it, and even sit on top of his hoard like a miniature dragon. According to Ernest, Silver Spot spent half an hour toying with his treasures. After he had his fun, Silver Spot went to work covering his collection with dirt and gingerly pulling leaves over the spot.
Adults of wild flocks will actively teach the youngins a thing or two. Besides social skills, the young are taught how to bend tools to reach food, or how to drop clams and nuts into roads for cars to run over, cracking open the meat inside. But one of the most interesting stories comes from John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist.
John and his fellow researchers, tagged crows in one area and quickly discovered how well crows can remember and recognize human faces, and so the researcher wore a mask. Crows don’t particularly enjoy being captured and banded and so whenever the crow would see the person wearing the mask, it would start to harass him. It was bad enough being harassed by one crow, but that same crow would call in the rest of his flock, and the mask wearer would be screeched at in ire, and dive bombed by the whole flock.
This went on for many months after that particular crow had been tagged. And when the tagged crow started a family, he taught his offspring about the man in the mask. Once they fledged, the offspring were also active in harassing the man. The man had never attempted to capture the offspring, but their father somehow had taught them that the masked man was bad. They wouldn’t bother any of the other students or researchers on campus. Even when people walked by wearing other masks, the crows were calm. But whenever someone wore the mask that father crow had been captured by, the whole flock ganged up on that particular mask. Then father crow’s grandchildren became evolved, and then their grandchildren became evolved. 10 years later, that particular flock on the campus remain hostile towards that mask.
Many people have been lucky in watching crows and ravens frolicking. Thankfully some have filmed the corvids at play and have posted these onto youtube. NCARalph provides an enduring narrative while two young crows take turns leaping onto a thin low hanging branch and swinging on it. Often they end up hanging upside down, playfully nipping at the branch before tumbling off only to repeat the fun again and again.
There are other videos of crows sliding and rolling down a windshield of a snow covered vehicle. They hop back onto the roof to take turns repeating the fun.
Crows will also include tool use in their playtime as well. A russian family has posted a video of a crow taking what appears to be a plastic lid to the top of an icy roof. He sets the lid down and stands on it, and slides his way down the roof. Clearly not an accident, as he brings the lid back up to jubilantly continue his sledding.
In Colorado, the ravens are surfer dudes. At the cliffs, the birds carry up scraps of thin bark. Once high enough, they brace themselves on the bark and let themselves fall. They take on a stance much like a snowboarder as they ride the wind currents downward. Hang ten bro! Well, since ravens only have four toes on each foot, it would be hang 8 instead. Gnarly board duuuuuuude!
What are the ranges of emotion in corvids? In regards to sorrow, there are a few people who claim to have witnessed crows holding funerals. At the sight of a fallen comrade, a crow will send out a call and the news spreads quickly among the flock. The flock will all gather around the dead crow, either on the ground, or in tree branches above and stare. Sometimes a few members will come forward and place pebbles or sticks on the dead body. One witness claims that the crows arranged multiple sticks around their fallen, outlining the body.
Many scientists believe that crows only do this to learn what caused the death so they can avoid any possible demises on themselves. And I’m sure that’s just one of the things going on at these crow funerals. Personally I feel as if there is also mourning involved as well. Say a crow was killed by a predator, it would be dangerous to remain in that area. By lingering on the ground to arrange sticks around the body, a crow increases their chance at getting caught by the predator. Plus with all of them so focused on the deceased, a predator would have an easier time at catching another by surprise. Wouldn’t it be safer for the flock to flee the area?
Instead they stay, often quieting down and gazing at the lifeless crow. Meanwhile some go out of their way to leave a pebble or twig on the body. That’s a clue telling that there are emotions pulling on their hearts to do one more final thing for a lost family member.
One more story, I have a wonderful friend who sent me her personal experience with a crow. To respect her identity, we’ll call her Sweetfern. She is a special and amazing human with a heart brimming with love for Earth, and all things wild. Here it is, in her own skillfully written words…
Every year, the old AMHI campus in Augusta is visited by a very large, and very noisy congregation. In the early months of the year, before spring has really settled in, and when the possibility of snow is still very real, crows gather in the hundreds. People have been unnerved by them as they walk outside to leave work at dusk, and are greeted by the shadows and caws of many black birds hunched along the roofs of the granite buildings.
I’ve always been excited for them to return. When we first moved to the complex, I would often drive to the store and buy a sandwich and eat it in my car in the parking lot. I would pick an area with a view; a place I could people watch unnoticed. I didn’t realize that while i was enjoying my lunch and watching others, somebody was watching me.
On a sunny day, while enjoying a chicken salad sandwich in the comfort of my vehicle, I suddenly felt that sensation of being stared at, and to my surprise, looked over out my side window to see a crow standing confidently next to my car, and intently looking at me in the eye. No words needed, I understood exactly what this bird was asking me.
I slowly rolled down my window, expecting my visitor to be startled, but besides assuming a watchful half crouch, they didn’t react. “Hey bird”, I said softly as I tossed out a piece of chicken, which was gobbled up instantly. I shared the rest of my sandwich in the fashion of “a bite for you, and a bite for me,” and went back inside.
The next day, I parked in the same spot, and low and behold, a crow appeared. It was most certainly the same bird, and landed next to my car and stared in at me expectantly. Again, I shared my sandwich.
This went on for a couple weeks. I learned what my new crow friend liked to eat (chicken was their favorite) and did not like to eat (craisins were picked at, before they turned their beak up and waited for me to throw something better).
Crow friend would also call in their family and friends. They recognized me and my vehicle, and would call everyone in when I began throwing out whatever snack i had brought that day.
Their intelligence really stood out to me from that first time Crow Friend had asked me for my lunch. I was sitting in my vehicle, with tinted windows, minding my own business and this bird had spotted me, knew I was eating, and then decided to ask for some. Their interactions and the calls they used to communicate were fascinating as well and I bought a crow call that I never had the nerve to use, afraid that I would offend them.
Our friendship came to an end when they moved on in spring, I’m sure to find a mate, build a nest and do crow things.
I think its wonderful we share this planet with other highly intelligent creatures and I love sharing what I’ve found out about this amazing group of birds. If you feel prompted to share your stories and encounters with corvids, you are welcome to do so. I love learning about these amazing beings. Keep an eye out on the corvids, and share what you learn.