The Friday Fillip: The Crow

Every so often I’m struck by how impressive the crow is. This strutting, raucous, scavenger — a “murder” en masse — exhibits the sort of behaviour that should give us pause whenever we’re feeling smug about our perch atop the smartness pole. Not that this corvid, cousin to jays and magpies, is about to solve Fermat’s theorem, perfect the hydrogen bomb, or do anything so humanly intelligent. But the bird can solve problems, recognize faces, teach others (or learn from others), and outsmart human beings from time to time.

For example, a few years back Chatham, Ontario, was beleaguered by thousands upon thousands of crows. (The crow, like some other beasts, is semi-parasitical on human settlements. Apparently, though crows are found everywhere in the world except the high Arctic and Antarctic, they’re always within a few kilometres of civilization.) At one point the good burghers got armed and sallied forth to shoot the pests — only to cause the crows to learn how to fly higher than the bullets.

There’s a scientist in Seattle who realized that when his students caught and banded some crows on the campus, the general population of university crows recognized those students and scolded them relentlessly. Moreover, the crows remembered the kidnappers’ faces such that when the students returned to the university much later, they were still the object of crow reproach. Dr. Marzluff has since done studies to confirm that the birds really can and do learn and remember faces.

A lot of this crow lore is brought together in a TED talk by amateur crow-admirer Joshua Kline. In the video below, you’ll see crows solving problems and learn about Kline’s vending machine for crows. But first, to get you in the mood, you might want to play this short MP3 file of a corvid caw.

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