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