6 Terrifying Ways Crows Are Way Smarter Than You Think
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 ...
They Can Remember Your Face
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).
They Conspire With One Another
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.
Tools and Problem Solving
When someone mentions animals using tools, you probably think of chimps using blades of grass to get termites to eat, or maybe that dude with the unibrow who mows the neighbor's lawn -- but birds don't often come to mind. And they totally should: One early test of tool use and intelligence in crows had researchers tying a piece of meat to a string, and then tying that string to a stick. To a one, the crows all stood on the stick, grabbed the string, dragged it up, held it with their foot, and repeated the action until they could reach the meat. We know people right now that would fail that test (some of them are us).
Aesop had a story called "The Crow and the Pitcher," which goes like this: Crow wants some water from a pitcher, but he can't reach it, so he drops rocks into it until the water rises enough for him to get a sip. Now, Aesop is not generally considered a scientifically viable resource, at least not until the stuffy science world finally recognizes the validity of Fableology, but a recent test done on rooks (a small type of crow) showed that he may not have been far off. In the study, rooks were placed in a room containing a small pile of pebbles, then given a worm in a tube with water. And, because all good science is based on dickotry, they made sure the worm floated just out of the crow's reach.
Two of the birds took two attempts to figure out the trick, and the other two got it on the first try. Here's the really mind-blowing part: The birds didn't just figure out a crude behavior through trial and error; they dropped in stones only until the water was high enough to reach the worm, and went for the larger pebbles too, understanding that they would displace more water.
Which officially makes them smarter than most community college students
But that's nothing compared to the New Caledonian Crow: In another tube-based experiment, some food was placed in a little basket and then placed in a tube just out of reach of a crow named Betty. She and another crow, Abel, had two pieces of wire they could use to get the basket: One hooked, one straight. Abel grabbed the hooked wire and took off, while Betty took the straight piece, bent the wire into a hook and then used it to pull the basket out of the tube. This was not some trick Betty picked up through training. This was the first time she or Abel had ever encountered wire.
Then she wrapped it in some foil, poured some household chemicals over it and blew open the door.
When scientists attached small cameras to the tails of some New Caledonian crows, they discovered the birds were using sticks to get bugs out of trees. Typical bird stuff, right? Well, they also used stiff leaves and grass to manufacture knives, then used those knives to manufacture other tools. If the crows discovering how to makes shivs somehow doesn't scare you, surely the fact that they have discovered industry is cause to start rolling out the anti-raven zeppelins, right?
And oh god, there's more! NC crows passed yet another test involving hard to reach food. In this one, a crow was placed inside a container with a tiny stick, along with two small cages, one holding a piece of meat just out of reach, and one with a longer stick. The crow wasted no time in grabbing the small stick, using it to extract the long stick, then using the long stick to fish out the meat. Later, scientists locked a crow in a cage with a copy of Myst. Sadly, the game went unbeaten...but only because the crow said it prefers Professor Layton.
Planning sucks, because it always makes us do things, but even we have to admit that it requires a certain level of cognition that transcends what we think of as "animal." And yet crows do it: They frequently "cache" food, socking away reserves in case times get lean (and there are no tube-wielding scientists about to take advantage of). Obviously, this behavior is not the exclusive territory of the bird world's supervillains: Plenty of animals do it, like squirrels, but crows take it several steps further.
Go fuck yourselves, squirrels
Since they are omnivores and opportunists, crows are often thought of as thieves. And hell, that's probably fair. Even crows admit that. And that's why, when crows have food they want to stash, they always keep an eye out for other crows. If another is watching, the crow will pretend to hide the food in their cache, when in reality, they're stashing it in their chest feathers. Crows have learned sleight of hand! Then they fly off and bury it in another cache, far away from prying eyes. Now here's where it gets crazy: The watching crows have then been observed to follow the hiding crows, because they know that sometimes they pull a bait and switch themselves. This has led to a spiraling thief/counter-thief arms race, like a little avian cold war. We can only hope and pray there's a badass crow Petrov out there, watching out for us when this conflict inevitably escalates.
Crows pay attention to how the human world works, and often use it to their advantage: Some have been observed cracking walnuts by dropping them from the exact height needed to bust them open on the pavement. But in other cases, they take gravity out of the equation and just drop the nuts in front of cars, letting us do the work for them. These same crows also memorize the pattern of traffic lights to optimize the exact moment they drop the nuts, but also to make sure they only retrieve them when the light is red and the crosswalk sign is on, so they don't get run over. If you've ever been out driving, you know the latter is a skill that only about 10 percent of the human population has mastered.
"Gotta beat the lunch line at Panda Express!"
Quick quiz: What day of the week do the garbage men come to your block? What day do they service the next block over? And the one after that? And after that? If you don't know the answer to all of those questions, then congratulations! You're not stalking your garbageman. This must be a proud moment for you. But don't get too excited, because it also means you've just been outscored on a test by a bird: Crows have been known to memorize the patterns of garbage trucks so they can get easy access to the sweet, sweet waste contained within. They know they don't have the strength to open the cans, but also that the sanitation workers who open the cans for them inevitably leave some trash behind, so the crows simply memorize a driver's schedule, then follow the trucks to pick out anything tasty.
The nation's secret nuisance: hobo crows
But wait, if they're so fucking smart, why are they eating garbage, huh?
Ha! nevermind. Stupid crows.
David blogs at Death and Other Funny Stuff, writes for Funnycrave, and is the author of the ridiculous unedited sci-fi novel, Shorty.
You should purchase multiple copies of our book because it's all but inevitable that a crow will take it.
And check out other animals we need to destroy (and fast), in 5 Creepy Ways Animal Societies Are Organizing and The 6 Biggest Assholes in the Animal Kingdom.