Crows are Wicked Smart

  • Language is often said to be what “makes us human,” what differentiates humans from animals.
  • Crows may not satisfy all the conditions that linguists attach to human language—there’s not yet evidence, for example, that they rearrange the order of their calls to create new meanings—but they have something like a language, a system of communication that falls on a spectrum with our own.
  • But crows and ravens, whose Bay Area numbers have increased dramatically in the last few decades, are a harder sell.
  • But that doesn’t mean crows and ravens lack culture.
  • Scientists know the birds can exchange information directly, which could accelerate the spread of useful knowledge.
  • Like our own societies, those of crows and ravens are fission-fusion.
  • Ravens, and quite likely crows, can live outside the moment.
  • Innovations in experimental methods have encouraged studies of animal emotions.
  • Tests originally designed for very young children, whose willingness to gamble on uncertain outcomes reflects their emotional state, have been adapted to read the moods of pigs and sheep and even bees.
  • And while crows and ravens have yet to take these tests, several lines of evidence point to the possible richness of their emotional lives.
  • One of Wascher’s experiments involved greylag geese whose heart rates dropped when family members were near.
  • That effect hasn’t yet been tested in crows and ravens, Wascher says, but likely holds true of them too.
  • And monogamy, the institution at the center of crow and raven life history, should be an especially fertile ground for emotions: how better to unite two individuals through a lifetime of nest-building and food-gathering and chick-raising than with feelings?
  • Marzluff says the general public tends to be more interested in corvids than are birders.
  •   Of more interest to bird enthusiasts and conservationists is how corvids’ growing numbers affect other species.
  • In the late 1970s, the Oakland Christmas Bird Count counted just a handful of ravens, and well into the 1980s the counters tabulated just a few dozen crows.
  • Last year, they spotted 283 ravens and 1,215 crows.
  • The trend worries some people: all those corvids need to eat. “
  • There have been concerns about declines of songbirds and waterbirds,” says Yiwei Wang, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. “
  • I wouldn’t say that crows and ravens are the main cause, but they are one of the causes.”




Works Cited

Keim, Brandon. Bay Nature., 28 Dec. 2018,

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