The more we learn about crows, the smarter they get!

A  few years back, I wrote an article for Washingtonian magazine about wildlife to be found in urban areas, even a large metropolis like Washington, DC. In it, I made a casual reference to the “smart crow” scavenging for food in a McDonald’s parking lot. I couldn’t believe it when the editor omitted the word “smart” in the published article – maybe he thought readers would get confused, thinking I meant smart like Albert Einstein!  I guess I shouldn’t have assumed that everyone had heard of the intelligence of the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens, rooks, jays, jackdaws, and magpies.

Always watching and learning, crows are very resourceful. They can mimic calls of other birds, make tools, play tricks on each other, recognize and communicate danger to flock mates, and talk to each other in a dialect all their own. Their personality and ingenuity make them a fascinating group to watch. In all animal groups, brain size increases with body weight. The corvid’s brain is larger than other birds relative to its size – more in line with primates – when graphed against its body mass. This undoubtedly figures into what many researchers consider the bird’s intelligence in getting along in the world.

Most of the year, crows travel in tightly-knit family groups where they work cooperatively to find and exploit food sources. Photo by Lisa Rest at musicbirdblog.com.

Most of the year, crows travel in tightly-knit family groups where they work cooperatively to find and exploit food resources. Photo by Lisa Rest at musicbirdblog.com

Generally too cautious to come to feeders, crows will often congregate in large numbers to glean farm fields, but they have also developed some pretty unique ways to get food. My husband and I took a picnic lunch up to the Blue Ridge Parkway one day and while we were eating, we watched two crows dropping walnuts onto the hard road surface to crack them open. Then they would fly down to inspect the shells and clean out the nut meats. I’ve heard that crows will also place hard-to-crack nuts on roads in front of passing vehicles and then retrieve the crushed pieces. Maybe someone else has witnessed this, but I haven’t.

Some crows are known to be tool users in their natural environment. The New Caledonian Crow has been intensively studied recently because of its unique ability to manufacture and use its own tools in the day-to-day search for food. These tools include breaking off twigs and using torn leaves with barbed edges as hook-tools to dislodge insects from holes and crevices.

Crow using a stick as a tool. Photo by sciencemag.com

Crow using a stick as a tool. Photo by sciencemag.com

Scientists from New Zealand’s University of Auckland wanted to find out if New Caledonian Crows could spontaneously make tools from materials not previously encountered in order to get food. Placed in a situation where the bird can reach but not obtain a morsel of food using a straight piece of wire, it will bend one end of the wire into a hook. It then uses the hooked end to reach and obtain the food. The researchers believe that there is cultural evolution going on with the New Caledonian crows; that is, they invent new tools, modify existing tools, and pass these innovations to other individuals in their group.

As a young girl, I watched and listened to the crows communicating with each other. I decided the “crow call” was the perfect way to secretly communicate with one of my tomboy friends. While playing in the abandoned orchard behind our neighborhood, the “caw-caw” let us “talk” in a language no one else could decipher. I felt very clever using our secret crow calls. We were, after all, being sly and trickster-ish, mimicking what we understood to be a very intelligent bird.

If only we’d known back then what would come to light about crow intelligence years later, we’d have reveled in our secret crow calls even more. There’s a lot more going on in the corvid brain than we ever could have imagined.

“The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” ~ Albert Einstein

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42 thoughts on “The more we learn about crows, the smarter they get!

  1. Thank you for a really interesting post. The corvids are a fascinating group, we have quite a crowd of Jays and Magpies here, who wait every morning for me to feed my chickens, as soon as they think I’m gone, they mob the chickens and steal their food! I know I should discourgae them but they are so interesting to watch (I give the chickens a little extra to make up later)

    • Thank you!. I know what you mean about watching the jays and magpies. We don’t have magpies here, but the jays take full advantage of every opportunity. They can be noisy pests, but I enjoy their company nonetheless.

    • I wondered about that myself. Maybe the crow on the right is just skittish around the one standing over the peanuts – it could be a pecking order thing and he doesn’t want to get pecked!

  2. Crows are so under-appreciated! I find it odd that some people persist in thinking that only humans can be called “smart”. True, we evolved large and complex brains as our main survival tool—in part to make up for physical weaknesses—but other creatures are also incredibly smart, too, if you take the time to notice. There’s a lot to learn from the animal world. Thanks!

    • I’m with you Denise. Most animal lovers I know hold the thinking that animals are much smarter than we give them credit for.

  3. Great post, Jo Ann! Thanks so much for spreading the word.I would be lost without crows, so I am glad they have figured out how to adapt and live alongside us. Very intelligent of you to imitate crow caws, by the way. I think the placing walnuts in front of cars to crack them open was observed in Japan, but I read that quite a while ago so it might be a behavior that has spread to other urban populations as well. I never cease to be amazed by what crows can do.

    • Thanks, Lisa. And thanks again for the use of your photo. I think because of our dogs we don’t have crows coming around and I don’t go to parks and other places where they gather. I see and here them around the farm, but no good photo ops.

      • Trust me, it took years of feeding them and I guess the association they have developed with the camera and food. Other birds in the park picked up on it too. I once saw a group of House Sparrows practically knock over a guy who walked into the park and lifted his camera like he was going to take a picture. The House Sparrows all rushed up to him, underfoot, hanging in mid air, flying about his head, you name it. I couldn’t bear to tell him I was responsible for their rude behavior.

        • That’s funny, Lisa. It’s like the geese and ducks that all rush over when they see you with a bag in your hands. I’m always jealous when I see pictures of people with chickadees or other birds feeding out of their hands, but I don’t have the patience to get them to do that.

  4. I just happened to watch a NOVA show on public television this past week and it was about “smart” crows. They talk loudly when calling to others and yet mutter to each other when in their family group. They seem to have a vocabulary and work well in community with each other. Fascinating stuff.

    • Wish I had seen the show. People seem to hear all the bad stuff about crows, but none of the fascinating things that set them apart from other birds.

  5. I was wrong. The show I saw was on Nature on PBS. You can find it on the Nature website: A Murder of Crows.

    • A congregation of crows is actually called a “murder” – that’s somewhat ironic because they have been persecuted in the past by farmers and city-dwellers alike.

    • Thanks, Andrea. Crows and Blue Jays can be very boisterous and even pesky at times, but their personalities more than make up for their “faults.”

  6. Murder of crows. I haven’t heard that term but little wonder where it came from!
    We had a fox last summer that had a daily path around the house but in the woods. The crows would see him and follow him, screeching for 1/2 hour at times driving us humans mad!. Murder in more ways than one! Great article…

    • Yep, crows and jays can definitely drive you mad…but in a good way. 🙂 I’ve seen a fox only once on our farm – I’m sure our dogs have a lot to do with our lack of sightings.

      • I just checked Wiki to see if said why the term, but there was nothing other than the definition. Its always nice to learn something new.
        Yes dogs tend to keep animals away.

  7. I saw that Nature show about crows just the other night. They speculate they are more intelligent than chimps! It was a fascinating program. Great post Jo Ann. 🙂

    • I’m mad at myself for missing it – I know PBS does some great programming. Anyone who has watched these fascinating birds can’t come away without realizing there is “a light on in the attic.” 🙂

  8. Watch crows in a parking lot sometime. They will find the bags of dog food in the back of pickups and peck them open.

    Not only crows but seagulls…when I was in boot camp in San Diego the sea gulls would drop mussels on the pavement where we were marching. Then they could get to the insides.

    • It’s the smart birds that are the “trouble-makers!” I’ve seen them tearing trash bags open. People get upset with crows, but I see it as ingenuity. 🙂

  9. Hi Jo Ann

    Thanks for having a look at my blog. I love yours. My blog is like yours has shrunk in the wash. It seems like a remarkable coincidence that my short walk encompasses a wooded area (called a combe, I recently discovered, beautiful word) and some fields.

    I’m going to follow you and see what other similarities, and differences, there are.

    Cathy x

    • I know a lot of people follow photography blogs; I love to see pictures of nature, but the pictures come to life when there’s a “story” behind them. I’m glad you enjoyed mine.

  10. Thanks for another great article, and I’m happy to note crow admirers among your readers. As I live in a city, I’ve been somewhat surprised that crows regularly visit my back yard (three this morning). They are wary, and fly off if they spot me at the window. I’ve caught a few taking raw peanuts I put out, but last week, was a first, – I spied a crow drinking from the (heated) bird bath on the deck-rail.

    • When I lived in a townhouse, a few brave souls would come to the deck railing where I put out peanuts, but they were really skittish; any movement at all would scare them away. I’m glad there are so many people out there that realize they are just trying to get something to eat.

  11. I know they’re not always a favorite (some people find them scary), but I like crows. I’ve always thought there was something a little magical about them. Now I’ve learned they’re smart, too. Actually, I knew that, but had no idea they make tools. Fascinating. 🙂

    • I always knew crows were smart, but I didn’t really know how smart until I did some research, so I learned some things, too.

  12. When my wife spotted this TED talk about a crow vending machine, I knew I had to pass it along to you…

  13. I really enjoyed the video, Pat. Thanks so much for the link (and the thought). Never seen the TED show and I’m surprised that anyone would try to entertain people with a topic like crow intelligence- good for him!

  14. Just wanted to add that yesterday (3/2), near noon, I counted 50+ crows on the ground in in trees edging the ball field, – highly unusual. I wonder what they were up to ;->

    • Don’t know, Christine. My first thought was that they were getting ready to roost, but it was too early in the day. A carcass would attract crows, but 50? That’s a puzzle. I’ve always said I’d like to have a biologist following me around to answer all the questions that pop up. 🙂

  15. Crows are one of my all-time favorite birds. I just fed a couple of them this morning- they show up in a tree outside and caw until I toss them some peanuts 🙂

    • Aw, you’re lucky. Our dogs won’t tolerate crows coming around. It’s crazy, if I want to see them I’ll have to go to a park!

    • Those of us that really pay attention to birds (and other animals) know that they are a lot smarter than most people realize – including the scientists! There are all kinds of recent science “revelations” – from ants to bees, to birds, to you name it – that point to higher intelligence of all of God’s creatures.

  16. Great article that summarizes the greatness of crows Since we raised Ellie in 2006 we have been won over. Family is what crows are all about. Gee just like us. Watch and you will be rewarded by a baby crow frolking this spring. Follow the stick gathering to the nest

    • Thanks, batgurrl. When I lived in the suburbs, I saw crows all the time and enjoyed watching them. Here in the country, they tend to stay more in the woods and do not come close. Maybe there are city crows and country crows?

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