Mankind has a long and checkered past with crows and ravens: They have been feared as symbols of death, because they're all black and scary, revered as creators of the world because, well, it was either them or the seagulls, and worshiped as trickster gods, because of their baffling intelligence. Intelligent enough, in fact, for us to start worrying ...
Next time you see a group of crows, look closely. Try to remember which one is which, and see if you can tell the difference between them the next time you pass. Odds are good that you can't; they're crows, which makes them all big black birds. On the other hand, every last one of them very likely remembers you as the weird human who kept staring at them. We know this, because researchers in Seattle performed an experiment with some crows around their college campus. They captured seven of the birds, tagged them, then let them go. And they did it all while wearing creepy skin masks, because it was funny:
OK, so the scientists weren't just playing out horror movie fantasies -- they were testing whether the crows could recognize human faces or not. It turns out they can. To a frightening degree: Whenever the scientists walked around campus with the masks on, the crows would "scold" and dive-bomb them... because along with the ability to recognize us as individuals, the researchers also learned that crows can hold a grudge. And pretty soon, it wasn't just the first seven crows reacting. Other birds, ones that hadn't even been captured in the first place, started dive-bombing the scientists as well.
In case you think they were just telling each other "get the guy with the mask," they weren't: The test was repeated with multiple people wearing multiple masks, and without fail, the crows left the masked men who hadn't messed with them alone, but went murder-crazy on the mask that had been worn while messing with them. Quick, in Point Break, which Presidential mask did Swayze wear? No idea? Don't worry, we're pretty sure Johnny Utah didn't know half the time, either. But the crows would have.
"Wow. It's an honor to meet you Mr. President."
Pretty soon, every single crow on the campus knew which masks meant trouble, and wanted the guys wearing them dead. When they didn't wear the masks, however, the crows left them alone, because even they can't see through disguises ... yet.
Oh, and also none of the scientists were ever seen again.
Researchers believe that the ability to recognize humans is an extension of the crows's ability to recognize each other, which helps them to warn one other about potential predators. This also means that if -- oh, let's stop kidding ourselves here -- when they rise up against us, the crows will remember who threw out those tasty bread crumbs and who thought it was funny to spray them with the hose (in all fairness, it was pretty funny, just maybe not "worth having my eyes pecked out" funny).
So, how did those crows above -- the ones that were never even captured in the first place -- know to harass the masked scientists? The answer is simple: They were told. All that cawing isn't just noise; they're talking to one another, and doing so in a very advanced fashion. Scientists debate whether or not crows actually have what we call a language. But why it's a debate at all is somewhat baffling: Those same scientists also readily acknowledge that crows have regional dialects, a difficult thing to have without a language.
I say, is that a west London accent I detect in that screaming gibberish?
And it's not just that they're capable of identifying threats within their visual range and relaying that information to one another: Some of the crows never actually saw the person in the mask, but they knew about him all the same. Even subsequent generations of crow, whose only experience with the "masked scientists" was from stories told 'round the crow campfires at midnight, displayed the exact same antagonistic behavior when encountering the masks.
So, not only do they recognize us as individuals, but they have the means to describe us in detail to one another, even across generations. You know what that means: If you've ever fucked with a crow, even if it was just the one time, decades ago, his children might be out there right now, plotting bloody revenge against you.
In Chatham, Ontario, crows began using the town as a sort of rest stop along their migration route. The end result was hundreds of thousands of birds taking refuge in the city, and because Chatham is a farming community, and crows tend to ruin crops, you can imagine that there were problems. It got so bad that the mayor declared war on them, hopefully by screaming those exact words into the air before hefting an axe and charging at their nests. The townspeople set out, hoping to bag at least 300,000 of the 600k birds currently ruining their livelihood. Unfortunately for Chatham, word spreads fast in crow communities. The first day after the announcement was made, hunters went out and shot a crow.
And it may not have even been a real crow...
The rest flew off and, presumably in a dark room lit by a single ceiling lamp, began to spread word about the incident. After that, the Chatham crows always made sure to fly high enough above settled areas to avoid getting hit with bird shot. No more were killed that year. At all.
One crow dead out of more than half a million.
They'll be back any minute now
That's the end result of an entire human city setting out in an organized fashion to exterminate some crows. We don't have the statistics on this, but just playing the odds, we're pretty sure more humans than that died in the hunt, or else just choking on a taco after being startled by a crow. This behavior is not isolated to Chatham, either: Crows have been known to change their entire migration pattern to avoid farms where even a single crow has been killed in the past. Generations upon generations later, they still remember specific houses where one measly bird has died. Sure, they're only avoiding those houses for now -- those houses that they remember, those houses that they know have taken one of their own -- but there's just something deeply unsettling about the possibility that there are millions of crows out there right now that know your address.