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Are crows really almost human?
by Karen Benson
Feb 25, 2013 | 1333 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Wikimedia commons photo
You can’t find crows in Corpus Christi, but we have them around Beeville. These large, highly intelligent birds are widespread in Texas. But they just don’t want to be any farther south than Bee County! Their brain to body size ratio is roughly the same as that for humans. They are social, make tools and, in some tests, they actually outdo human toddlers at solving problems.
Wikimedia commons photo You can’t find crows in Corpus Christi, but we have them around Beeville. These large, highly intelligent birds are widespread in Texas. But they just don’t want to be any farther south than Bee County! Their brain to body size ratio is roughly the same as that for humans. They are social, make tools and, in some tests, they actually outdo human toddlers at solving problems.
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He was thin, but brave. As he stood at the bottom of the gravel driveway leading to the isolated wilderness lodge, he seemed to size up the eight humans eyeing him. He was a wild bird, a young raven, somehow an outcast among his own kind.

The eight humans were biologists. Even with their training ringing in their ears (don’t feed the wildlife!), they took to him. They talked softly to him. They named him Al and called him over.

Within 24 hours he was sitting in their laps, enjoying pancakes and ham trimmings. But he was not a pet; he had never done this before at the lodge. And he hadn’t flown in from somewhere else where he might have learned this. He was just a few weeks out of the nest.

This was a smart bird. He could read human body language and took the risk of approaching a different species than his own. His brain and his behavior allowed him to be a survivor.

Ravens are large cousins to the crow. The whole crow family, called corvids, includes not only crows and ravens but jays, magpies and nutcrackers. All of these birds are exceptionally intelligent and highly social.

Corvids are so social that they are usually found in groups, sometimes numbering in the thousands. The group develops a hierarchy but they still work together and share food. They learn from their parents and from their peers. They recognize potential danger and don’t hesitate to voice their opinions.

A gang of crows will mob hawks and owls, screaming ‘bloody murder’ until the predator leaves. Perhaps that is why a group of crows is referred to as a “murder” of crows!

I read about a Canadian farming community that was beset by a huge flock of crows. Over a half a million birds threatened the townspeople’s livelihood, and the mayor declared war on the crows. The next day, the hunters went out to shoot crows. One crow was shot. Just one. All the rest flew off. And they must have communicated among themselves about the incident. Because, thereafter, all crows in the area flew around that community’s fields! If they did fly over them, it was at an altitude too high for birdshot.

Some members of the crow family are especially adept at using tools to get food. One crow named Betty took a piece of wire (she’d never encountered wire before) and bent the end into a hook in order to fish a basket of food from a long transparent tube.

There are also anecdotes of crows dropping clams on a stretch of road (actually a ferry exit) and waiting, yes WAITING, until the unloading vehicles actually ran over the clams, releasing bits of sweet, sweet clam meat. And by then, the lane was empty of cars as the other lane loaded on to the ferry. Is that not smart?

How can something with a bird brain have language, memory, insight, use tools and solve problems? Corvids also show wrath, play and even become avian delinquents. There is a lot more going on in these birds’ brains than we previously thought.

In the last few decades, scientific research into the neural anatomy of birds has revealed surprising abilities. We share many of our human capabilities with certain birds, in particular the corvids and the parrots. Even our brain’s size relative to our body weight is similar. Our brain is 1.9 percent of our body weight. Crows’ brains are 1.4 percent. Compare this with a blue whale whose brain is only 0.01 percent of its body weight.

Wrong a crow, and it will remember. One man learned this the hard way. His wife fed the crows and enjoyed their antics. He did not. One day he threw a rock at the flock of crows. Thereafter, the crows followed him on his walks, scolding him. They pooped on him. They pooped on his car, but not his wife’s car. Even when he parked his car in his wife’s spot, the crows selectively pooped on his!

Likewise, show a crow a kindness, and it will remember. One lady rescued a fledgling crow and put it on a low roof. She also put a can of cat food up there. The crows realized that she was trying to help them, placate them. They watched her but never ever scolded her, mobbed her or pooped on her.

Sometimes, the crows themselves will show kindness. One couple observed a starveling kitten walking through their yard. The kitten was accompanied by a crow. The crow was finding worms and bugs and giving them to the kitten to eat. The couple adopted the kitten, but the crow stayed too. Every morning for years, the crow would knock on the back door and wait for the kitten to come out and play!

Another gentleman regularly prepared delicious crow food (chicken skin, pet food, bits of eggs) and daily placed it on a feeding platform in his back yard. The crows always came. One day, he asked the flock, “How come I always bring you things, and you never bring me anything in return?” I am sure he didn’t expect an answer. But later that day he looked at the empty feeder and saw a tiny purple object on it. Upon examination he found it was a candy heart, of the Valentine’s Day kind. It was worn but it still clearly had the word “LOVE” on its surface. Doesn’t that give you the “weebie-jeebies”?

Other gifts followed: A special twig. A cylinder of concrete. A flower. The gentleman saved them all. One day, the gifts stopped. He noticed that one of the crows in the flock was no longer there.

Could all of this just be coincidence? Maybe.

We don’t have too many American Crows in Bee County. The southern boundary of their range in Texas was believed to be Medio Creek. But I have seen them beyond that. Watch for them! And remember how smart they are. In fact, they are probably watching you!
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