Note: This column appeared in the April 8, 2015 issue of the Barrow Journal.
I am adding a new bird to my list of favorites, and it may seem a strange choice to you. Most people don’t list “crow” as one of their favorite birds. Up until now, my favorites have been a toss up between cardinal, bluebird, owl, egret or blue heron. I mean, really, it’s hard to pick a favorite bird when they are all so magnificent, isn’t it?
But recently my family watched a PBS Nature documentary titled “A Murder of Crows.” A group of crows is called a “murder” probably because of old folklore that associated crows with death. Crows are scavengers, like ravens, and both these blackbirds have had a bad rap. Actually, they are both extremely intelligent and may be some of the smartest animals on earth. But ravens don’t live around here, so I’m going to stick to crows for this column.
Scientists are studying crows and learning quite a bit about them. I was impressed to watch one experiment when a researcher put a piece of food out of reach from a crow, but he left a tool nearby that the bird could use to retrieve it, if he could figure out how to use it. However, the crow had to use another tool in order to reach the tool that would get the food. The bird used both the tools and got the food easily.
That was impressive by itself, but then the researcher gave the crow an additional challenge. He tied the first stick to a rope and hung it down from a perch that the crow sat on. This way, the crow had three steps he had to take to get the food. He had to pull the string up with his beak and retrieve the first tool, use it to get the second tool, and then use the second tool to get the food. The researcher hypothesized that the crow wouldn’t be able to do that. But the crow did it! This is more impressive when you consider that even chimpanzees can’t do this three-step process.
Observations have also revealed that a crow’s social structure is similar to humans. They mate for life, and families live in close proximity, continuing to help each other throughout their lives. A baby crow might stay with its parents for up to five years and even help raise its younger siblings. (Most birds are on their own as soon as they leave the nest.)
Crows can congregate in roosts with thousands of other crows, especially when they find food such as a cornfield (farmers will not like crows), but individual crows will come and go from their parent’s nest. Some may travel far and visit occasionally. Others may stay and live nearby.
Another interesting part of the documentary was the research done on how crows can recognize and remember human faces. If a human or other animal has threatened or hurt them, they will use the same distress call each time they see them to alert other crows in the area.
Scientists in the documentary conducted extensive experiments to show that parents of crows may even pass on knowledge of dangerous people to their children, and the children will use the same distress call when they see the threatening person, even after leaving their parent’s nest.
I don’t know about you, but learning about crows has elevated them in my mind. We see them all the time in our neighborhood, but I took them for granted. They weren’t as interesting to me as the beautiful songbirds, but now when I see a pair poking around my yard for some food, I’m fascinated. These intelligent birds have earned my respect.