The Friday Fillip: Disturbing Tribe

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)


  1. Reminds me that back in the Nineties, I spent a couple of hours offshore in Haida Gwaii watching a pair of ravens completely outsmart golden eagles as the eagles hunted. The eagles were of course magnificent, but they kept losing the vermin and the fish they got, to the pair which would co-ordinate their trickery and distraction.

    Of course within Haida culture, Raven and Eagle are lineages that are coequal and represent two halves of a whole.

    The Raven has supernatural powers and uses them to obtain important things for humans. He stole the sun, moon and stars for humans, as well as giving them fresh water, salmon and fire.

    Choughs however are a different matter – noisy devils

  2. Quirky that “murder of crows” is the term for a group of crows … re your opening (trickery?) re characterization of “occasionally hangs out at murders.” Most cultures have tricksters in stories, mythologies. Following one link from Simon Chester, there was a reference to “unlocked the Indian in Bill Reid”, re BR’s artwork based on Haida culture. Positive shape-shifting. The mirror side of that phrase is, “take the Indian out of the child”, policy behind residential schools. Duncan Campbell Scott. Humans may literally be able to recognize what’s in the mirror, Simon Fodden, but the mirror is a symbol for much. In these times of huge transition, can humans recognize the mirror of the world that we have created. (various symbols in the blog). And use out positive trickery capabilities to create more positive choices.

  3. Susan Anderson Behn

    Ah….and to just add one other piece to this, consider the Jay family…related to Crows, but although they do not individually show the level of problem-solving considered here, the group behaviour of jays, (collectively the Cyanocitta) is remarkable.

    Jays in a group exhibit characteristic activities which improve the overall ability of that particular group of Jays to survive and prosper. Its the Group Behavior that counts….not anything to do with the individual Jay.

    Jays do not have the kind of social organization that science would assume leads to this kind of effective “group action”…its more like an instinctive set of reactions in any collective bunch of Jays faced with an opportunity to harass another critter, so that the Jays involved have more access to food.

    Its a spontaneous street gang that is created from whatever set of individual Jays happened to be on that particular street corner when the opportunity is there…like a “critical mass”…not planned, and not replicatable.

    Jays eat things like nuts and seeds and berries…but there are other things who want to eat those same things, and are competing directly for Jays for these food sources.

    Jay BEHAVIOR makes those other critters actively work to make those nuts and seeds and berries more available to Jays….

    If you know what you are looking for, you can probably see examples of this “Jay Behavior” all around you…if you spot a Jay, a Blue Jay or a Stellars Jay or a Grey Jay, you will see more than one…and watch what they do:

    Where there is a food source, like a maple tree with maple seeds ready to spin off on those green wings…the Jays are competing with squirrels for those seeds- Jays need a lot of maple seeds to keep flying, but they can only pick them off the tree or off the ground one at at time.

    Squirrels can collect more than one seed at a time, run back to hide the seeds, then run out to collect more..Squirrels are bigger than Jays….and are dangerous to Jays if they go head to head…

    So what do Jays do? They gang up on the squirrels…

    This appears to be a spontaneous, unorganized, natural kind of “swarming” that Jays do….So the squirrels are in the tree, stripping off the maple seeds from the branches of the tree….and the Jays start dive bombing the squirrels…
    They keep up this bombardment of the squirrels as the squirrels attempt to harvest the seeds…so the squirrels drop their maple seeds, and then go back for more…and every time a squirrel actually has one or more maple seeds in its mouth or paws …the Jays flock in and harass it until the seed is dropped…

    The ground around the tree becomes covered with twigs and seeds dropped by the squirrels. The Jays keep harassing the squirrels, who may still be trying to collect maple seeds, but are in danger if they come out of the tree …and so stay there as long as the Jays keep attacking.

    In the meantime, the ground is littered with maple seeds…which are now being gobbled up by some of the Jays…a major coup for the Jays, since this way they have access as a group to many more maple seeds than they could have dislodged from the tree themselves, as individuals…

    This is the kind of thing that shows up in Population Ecology work…its looking at the behaviour, not the genetics, or the other elements that influence how groups work….

    And somehow I think this kind of behavior can LOOK like intelligence, but it isnt…so if you go back to the start of the Friday Fillip…you can add the DARK BLUE -SUITED BUNCH as outliers ….since there are certainly characteristics of intelligence there, but its important to know what comes from triggered behaviours, and what comes from connected thought.