Should crafty lawyer trespass on our ground,
Caitiffs avaunt! disturbing tribe away!
Unless (white crow) an honest one be found;
He’ll better, wiser go for what we say.*
What wears black, talks a lot, occasionally hangs out at murders, and is intelligent, aggressive, and generally little-loved?
Yes, that’s right.
Seems to me there are worse things than being compared to crows, however. I have a lot of respect for these loud, shiny birds — for corvids generally: jays, ravens, rooks, crows, magpies — mostly because they do interesting things, which is to say that I think they’re “smart.” And in that I’m supported by a bunch of research, some of which goes so far as to say that the crow is the most intelligent of birds. (I’ve yet to see an intelligence cage match between a crow and a grey parrot, though.)
Now, being the best bird-brain may not sound like much of an achievement to you, but I think you’d be mistaken in that judgment. Researchers like to make a rough approximation between intelligence and brain size compared to body size; in which case crows are right up there with some primates. And to test this crude assumption of smarts, the researchers have put crows to all manner of tests aimed at measuring their problem solving ability. I won’t regale you with videos of them all, but you might like to watch crow 007 crack a puzzle that could stymie me if you got me too early in the morning.
If that intrigues you, you might like to take a look at a TED talk given by a man who has a plan to get crows and people to cooperate to improve our surroundings. (And for those who want to delve into the neuroscience, there’s an interesting piece on the convergent evolution of intelligence in crows and apes, who, it seems, use different brain structures to reason.)
Then there’s the other way of coming at intelligence: looking for self-recognition, or, I suppose, consciousness. And a common way of tackling that is through the use of mirrors: does the viewer recognize the image as one of the self? You do; and most mornings I do as well; but nearly all animals fail the mirror test. The corvid that in this video passes this test is the magpie, who (presumably annoyed or affronted) saw the blemish applied to its chest and promptly pecked it off.
Corvids aren’t alone in behaving in these ways that delight researchers: porpoises, chimpanzees, elephants, among others, have passed these tests, earning themselves our accolade of “intelligent.” My own champion, apart from crows, is the octopus, which I suspect of having amazing mental prowess, a small aspect of which you get to see in this startling video.
But there’s a larger question, it seems to me — and a corollary that involves law, as it happens. The bigger issue is what we think we’re doing when we measure and rank other creatures this way. The whole notion of intelligence, certainly as conceived of as a unitary thing, is highly debatable, as is our ability to measure “it,” whatever “it” may be. The ranking thing strikes me as a way to cosy up to certain beasts so that we don’t feel so isolated among the fauna: they do stuff that’s sort of like what we do; so we can be buds.
Another way of looking at things, though, would emphasize the perfection, as it were, of each animal’s ability to manage, exploit, negotiate its particular niche in the bush of life. That’s what natural selection accomplishes, after all: the best adaptation possible. No animal solves tiger problems better than a tiger.
That said, there’s still the fact that some of our fellow passengers seem to have a “surplus” capacity to do brain work, as if during some adaptation the old think-pudding overshot the needful and built some underused capacity. We should be careful, though, in labelling and ranking — as always. (And thoughtful, too, about what these discoveries of alien intelligence might mean for our sense that legal rights should attach to intelligence of at least a minimal sort.)
Above all, however, delight in the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, setting intelligence to one side, where it belongs. So don’t stone the crows. Talk to them instead: they know who you are and may deign to talk back.
* Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Dedication)