The RoVing Naturalist: Uncommon crows

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By Dennis Prichard
Ever since I was a youngster I have been fascinated by crows. Something about their behavior has struck a curiosity in me to watch them and learn from them. The more I learn, the more amazed I become, and the more I find them uncommon.

Crows, and the rest of the family Corvidae, are probably the most intelligent of all birds according to many scholars. In fact, a book called The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman, talks about crows and their close kin quite a bit. After reading it, and thinking back on all my observations over a lifetime, I can emphatically state that they are the most intelligent bird.


istockphoto.com

It puzzled me to approach them from an open field and get within 25 yards or so before they would take to the air. This was only if I had nothing in my hands. Conversely, if I had a shotgun or even a stick, the wary birds would spot me from “miles away” and immediately leave the premises, scolding as they went.

This type of behavior is not all instinctive. Naturalists have watched adult crows hop around their young squawking alarm calls as the humans approached. The youngsters would have sat in the tree perfectly at ease if the parent had not warned of imminent danger. Thus another example of their intelligence was discovered – they learn and they remember!

Crows can count, well, up to a certain number. It has been shown that crows will watch three hunters go into a grove of trees and count the number of hunters that later emerge. If only two hunters appear, the birds will not go near the woods. If all three return, the birds know it is safe and go about their regular business. This only works up to four or five hunters. If seven hunters go into the woods and six return, the crows will act as if all is clear.

Another example of their intelligence is their vocal capabilities. Twenty-three different calls have been identified for the crow’s vocabulary. Each call has its own meaning to the crows. In fact, crows have been observed holding a “parliament” of sorts. They gather in large groups sitting in the tops of trees all facing towards the center where there is usually a clearing. One crow will stand in this arena calling to the others while they remain silent. As the speaker finishes, the congregation speaks softly amongst themselves. Whether this is truly the way it happens or if it is just our human interpretation of the act is still to be determined.

Yeah, we’re talking about you, Dennis. From Wikimedia Commons

Crows have a longer extended time to develop mentally than most birds, which might favor higher intelligence. Adults teach their young to use tools for food gathering. They actually have a genetic advantage for this type of behavior. Gift-giving is common with them as well as “play.” They certainly recognize certain human faces and distinguish them from others. And they have been known to show grief at the death of a close relative.

These actions have been dismissed for generations, so much so that science has actually had a tough time proving them. But with proper scientific procedures and replicated experiments, they show time and again that these birds are far smarter than we give them credit.

I know they talk when I hear them in the bare trees around my neighborhood. And I wonder what they are saying. Something about me maybe? I hope it’s not too scathing.

Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.

 

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Tommy Molnar

Several years ago while staying in Death Valley we came across a “murder” of crows. That’s the official name for a gathering of crows. There had to be 20 or more of them, standing around in a bunch. A couple of them ‘yakking it up’ and the rest seemingly paying attention. I think crows are really cool, and I love to hear them when they land in a tree near our house (or even better, near where we’re camped). They are fun to watch, and they seem to really pay attention to what’s going on around them. Thanks for the article, Dennis.