We’ve all seen or heard of Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader, but current research suggests that eventually we may be able to do the same with crows.
Crows have always held a place within our culture. From Norse to Australian Aboriginal mythology, they have long been known as tricksters, carriers of information, and symbols of intelligence. And not without good reason.
At a university in Seattle, an experiment involved trapping and tagging a number of local crows in order to monitor their flight patterns and where they rested. In order to protect themselves from the crows scratching at them, the researchers wore masks, and because they were university students, they all wore the same creepy mask during the experiment. The researchers got the information they were looking for, but they also found some additional information they were not counting on.
A week after the initial part of the experiment, the researchers found that if they wore the masks used during the tagging process, they would be swooped and loudly cawed at by all of the crows in the area. People wearing different masks, however, were left alone. The researchers weren’t just swooped by those crows that were involved in the experiment, they were also swooped by other crows that weren’t involved in the experiment, meaning that not only had the crows involved memorised the ‘face’ that had caused them such a nuisance, but they had also passed this information on well enough to other crows so that they recognised and harassed the same mask.
If having their own language isn’t scary enough, Candace Savage, a Canadian nature and science writer, comments that crows appear to have personalised dialect when communicating with each other, especially within their families. Meaning that to the trained ear, a crow from America could sound very different to a crow from Australia.
Despite their tendency to travel, crows have appeared to be incredibly family-driven. Crows in New York have been found to spend up to six of their ten- to fifteen-year lifespan living with their family in their nest. Even after they have left, the crows will occasionally come back and visit their parents.
New Caledonian crows are some of the most intelligent and active tool-users of this progressive species. In a study in 2002, two New Caledonian crows were presented with a tube of water where a treat was floating out of the crows’ reach, surrounded by pebbles. After attempting to get at the treat, the crows then began working together to put the biggest pebbles into the tube, raising the water in order to get the food.
In 2009, during a test on their problem-solving abilities, Alex Kacelnik observed a New Caledonian crow, which had never been exposed to wire before, spontaneously bend a straight piece of wire so that it could get at a treat. This kind of problem solving hasn’t even been seen in chimps or apes — who share their methods for problem-solving — placing crows closer to human beings in terms of raw problem-solving abilities.
So maybe next time you think about yelling at some crows or throwing rocks, reconsider. Not just because it’s a horrid thing to do to any animal, but because with the way that these black birds are progressing, there’s a good chance that that crow will remember your face, warn their family about you in their own personal dialect, and then organise a group to break into your house. I wouldn’t take any chances, anyway.
Words by Joshua Paddon