There are lots of birds out there with beauty on their side — majestic wide-winged eagles, brightly colored hummingbirds and extravagant peacocks, just to name a few.
But when it comes to raw intelligence, none of those birds can hold a candle to the high-powered grey matter inside one of the ugliest flyers out there — the crow.
It’s easy to overlook crows’ intelligence and see them as nothing more than pests — I knew nothing of crows’ brilliance until recently when I watched a recording of a “Ted Talk” online. Ted Talks are a collection of brief but highly informative speeches and presentations given by scientists, thinkers and others, which have been recorded and posted to the Internet for free viewing.
The Ted Talk about crows features a speaker who built a vending machine for crows that rewarded the birds when they brought it specific items. With minimal guidance, the crows basically discovered for themselves how to operate the machine and get rewarded. Perhaps even more impressive, after one crow figured out how to use the machine, other crows learned from the first one and began using the machine, too.
The speaker proposed this vending machine development could be used to train crows to retrieve trash or recycling in exchange for rewards, which would be beneficial for the crows as well as the environment.
Seeing the Ted Talk about crows’ intelligence led me to research crows more deeply for a research paper in one of my master’s classes.
Crows, as it turns out, are considered to be “synanthropes,” which is a fancy word for animals that thrive living near people. Wherever human populations flourish, crows won’t be far behind, if they’re behind at all.
Crows are so intelligent, they can craft tools in the wild. Obviously we’re not talking hammers or chainsaws here, but crows are able to use sticks and other items they find to dig out or fish for insects hiding in holes, for example.
Some crows in Japan have been seen dropping nuts into traffic so the oncoming vehicles will crush the nuts and crack them open. The crows will then wait for traffic to stop before retrieving their food. As crows have begun doing this, more and more crows have been picking up the behavior, which means that they are teaching one another.
Crows have great capacity for memory, too. When students at the University of Washington collected, banded them for identification and released them, the crows were not happy at all about how they had been treated and began to caw and harass the students whenever they saw them on campus.
The crows could still remember the specific students who had ‘wronged’ them, even after they had graduated, because whenever the students returned to campus, they would begin cawing at them and tormenting them again.
Now that you know more about how smart crows are, the next time you see one you can watch and see if it does anything remarkable, rather than thinking of it as just a pest.
Amanda's Animal Fact of the Week
In the small town of Auburn, N.Y., (population 27,000) crows may very well outnumber people during the winter months. Every year, as many as 50,000 American crows roost in Auburn’s trees.
Amanda Wheeler is a Danville resident who has worked as an educator at the Cincinnati Zoo. She is currently pursuing her master's in zoology.