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The Unexpected Genius of Corvids

It's really something to crow about.

by Rachel Pick
Jul 7 2015, 9:00am

Image: Ingrid Taylar/Flickr

Amateur bird photographer Phoo Chan recently captured an incredible moment: a crow landing on the back of a bald eagle and briefly hitching a ride. The photo series got passed around Twitter and written up on Mashable just before the holiday last week, perfect timing for photos featuring the United States' mascot.

The fact that a majestic bald eagle could be used as a taxi service by another species is seemingly unbelievable (and the crow was more likely defending its nest than using the eagle for transportation). But the truth is, one of the smartest (and wiliest) extant animal species could be living a lot closer to you than you'd think. The crow, long derided as a pest or portrayed as a gloomy harbinger of death, actually possesses an intelligence that closely mirrors our own.

Crows belong to the family Corvidae, which also includes ravens, magpies, jackdaws, and jays. All corvids display a range of intelligent behaviors that not only surpass that of other birds, but most mammals as well. To the uninitiated, the idea that a bird species could be up there with dolphins and chimps might be pretty surprising, but the evidence is insurmountable.

"They have a theory of mind. They remember what I've done before, and they predict what I'm going to do in the future," says Kevin McGowan, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who has been studying crows for 20 years and has tagged over 2,000 of them to study their reproductive and social behavior.

"They have an intelligence that more closely mirrors that of human intelligence."

Perhaps the best argument for this is crows' well-documented facial recognition ability. Back in 2008, researcher John Marzluff at the University of Washington began to notice that previously trapped members of the local crow population seemed more wary of certain members of his team, making them harder to capture. He wondered if it was possible that the crows actually had the ability to recognize faces, and decided to test his theory using masks. Researchers wearing a mask designated as "dangerous" captured crows, while a control group of researchers wearing a "neutral" mask did not capture them. (The "neutral" mask was Dick Cheney, who is arguably neutral evil, at best.)

In the following months, the researchers wore both masks around campus, making no effort to disturb the crows—but the crows remembered. They scolded the researchers wearing the "dangerous" mask, while spotting the neutral mask seemed to have little to no effect. Even with the masks turned upside down, or disguised with a hat, the crows still recognized the face.

I mentioned Marzluff's study to McGowan. "They go way beyond facial recognition," he said. "The ones that live here at the lab of ornithology, that are in the parking lot, they know my walk. They can identify me from behind." The crows have also learned to recognize McGowan's car: "They actually will anticipate where I'm going and go sit by my car when I'm walking to it." (The crows like McGowan, not least because he keeps peanuts for them in his car.)

Crows also have the ability to solve complex problems, demonstrated in this BBC clip narrated in David Attenborough's dulcet tones. Faced with a type of nut too hard for them to crack, crows drop the nuts into pedestrian crosswalks and wait for a car to run over them. Once the way is clear, they drop down and grab their snack. Not only have they figured out how to use cars as excessively giant nutcrackers, but they've figured out how to wait for the light to change to safely time their retrieval.

Crows are also unusual in their social structure. They mate for life, form close-knit communities, and the juveniles sometimes stick around to help raise their younger siblings—just like in a human family. (Okay, like in a functional human family.) The Cornell lab has even documented a case of adoption, when some crows orphaned by West Nile virus were taken in by their avian neighbor. And crows' longer lifespan—some living up to 20 years in the wild—means they can take more time to "grow up," as McGowan says. Crows enjoy an extended adolescence, and just like human teenagers they spend a lot of that time goofing off, showing a particular affinity for punking dogs.

But the question is: why corvids? What led them to develop this human-like intelligence, and why do they pay attention to human behavior the way they do?

McGowan says that over generations, crows have been genetically selected to pay attention to human behavior, and he cites our turbulent history with crows as the impetus. "People used to shoot them whenever they could get a chance," he said. "So crows have been paying attention to people for a long time because they use some of our food...but somewhere along the line they've also figured out that it pays to pay attention to individual people—that all people are not created the same. Some are dangerous, some are not."

When we talk about animal intelligence, though, it's important to account for our own human bias. Biology professor Megan Gall at Vassar College told me that from her perspective, "corvids aren't necessarily 'smarter' than other birds...they have an intelligence that more closely mirrors that of human intelligence. In other words, they are good at tasks that we have an easy time identifying with."

It's an interesting thought. We use our own abilities as a yardstick for what "intelligence" means, and that may not be completely fair to other species with highly specialized skills—like echolocation, for example.

But regardless of how we view animal intelligence, it's clear that crows and other members of the Corvid family show some surprising capabilities that could help humans see them in a different light. In a feature on the ornithology lab website, McGowan is hopeful for a change in public perception. "People attribute some sort of malicious intent to what crows do when they're just trying to raise their kids like everybody else," he says. "It's not a bunch of juvenile delinquents coming through and trying to cause trouble."