If you visit the Bruce Museum during October you’ll see two taxidermy birds occupying the display case in front. One of these is a great horned owl, a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. The other is the common American crow, often called a nuisance or a pest. Are the reputations of these birds deserved? Perhaps not where intelligence is concerned.
If someone calls you “as wise as an owl,” it may not be the compliment they intended. While owls are excellent hunters and have sharp senses, they are not particularly intelligent according to human standards. Instead, it’s crows and their relatives that are the real bird braniacs.
Recently, researchers have been uncovering the hidden brilliance of crows. Crows are able to make and use tools in both natural and laboratory settings. They understand water displacement and can use it to help them reach food. Their reasoning abilities are similar to that of a 5 – 7 year old child and crows are matched with primates in their problem-solving abilities.
One crow looks the same as any other from the human perspective, but crows are much more discerning when it comes to us. Crows can remember human faces. More importantly, they can remember which humans have treated them well and which have treated them poorly. Crows communicate this information to other crows, meaning that a whole flock of crows can learn to dislike a certain human even if only one of their members is holding a grudge. Be careful how you interact with crows. They’ll remember, and they’ll tell their friends about you too!
One final way in which crows are extraordinary is that they have a concept of death. A researcher wore a mask (so the crows wouldn’t remember her real face and harass her later) and held a dead crow in view of other crows for half an hour. Crows continued to avoid the masked individual on later days, even when tempted by food. Six weeks later, over a third of the local crows still responded to the masked individual as a threat, showing that they have lengthy memories. The crows didn’t respond when researchers held other dead birds, like pigeons. Crows were only distraught when confronted with dead members of their own species. Some have suggested this may be a sign of crows mourning their dead, though this is currently just speculation.
- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow