We humans seem to have a penchant for studying wildlife. We tag them with satellite transmitters, outfit them with radio collars, spy on them with trail cameras and use other observation techniques—all to learn more about their lives and secrets.
So I find it fascinating when the tables get turned, and we find out that wildlife is watching us.
That couldn’t be truer than in the case of crows. Research into the intelligence of corvids (a family of stout-billed birds that includes crows, jays, magpies and ravens) has exploded in the last few decades. We now know that crows use traffic to open hard-to-crack nuts and that they can figure out how to complete a complicated series of events in order to solve a puzzle.
And, just recently, we’ve learned that they are as smart, in some aspects, as a seven-year-old child—and that they are definitely watching us to learn more about humans.
Crows operating on a seven-year-old level
Until the 21st century, birds were largely dismissed as simpletons. After all, how smart can you be with a brain the size of a nut, the theory went; and taunts such as calling someone a “birdbrain” were common.
Research has since shown, however, that birds make good use of the allotted space for their tiny brains by packing in lots of neurons—more so than mammals, in fact. And crows are one of the smartest of the birds.
An article that appeared in the science journal PLOS ONE in July 2014 puts a comparison estimate on that brainpower: the authors concluded that crows are just as good at reasoning as a human seven-year-old child.
In this study, scientists subjected six wild crows to a battery of tests designed to challenge their understanding of causal relationships. The tasks, which involved water displacement, were all variations of an Aesop’s fable in which a thirsty crow drops stones to raise the level of water in a pitcher.
The crows had to determine how to obtain floating food rewards by depositing heavy objects into water-filled tubes. They demonstrated the ability to choose objects that would sink rather than float, and solid rather than hollow objects; and they were able to select a high-water-level tube over one with a low water level—showing a preference for the tube that would get them the food with the least amount of work—and a water-filled tube over one filled with sand. The crows filled the tubes with enough rocks or other heavy items to bring the food within reach.
According to a 2012 University of Cambridge study, such work is very challenging for children. While kids that were ages seven to 10 were able to learn the rules, it still took them a couple of tries to figure out how it worked. Children ages four to six, however, were unable to resolve the problem. They put the stones randomly into the tubes and weren’t getting the token (their version of the crows’ food reward) consistently. Thus, in a water displacement test, the crows performed on a level that so far only seven- to 10-year-old children have been able to complete successfully.
Crows learning about human behavior
Crows have an uncanny memory for human faces. They can hold grudges against some of us—and tell other crows about it, too. In fact, they seem to have a good sense that every person is unique and that they need to approach each of us differently.
In 2011, two researchers at the University of Washington, each wearing an identical “dangerous” mask, trapped, banded and released seven to 15 crows at five different sites near Seattle. To determine the impact of the captures on the crow population, observations were made over the next five years about the birds’ behavior by people walking a designated route that included one of the trapping sites. These observers either wore a so-called neutral mask or one of the dangerous masks worn during the initial trapping events.
Within the first two weeks after trapping, an average of 26 percent of the crows encountered scolded the person wearing the dangerous mask. Around 15 months later, that figure was 30.4 percent. Three years later, with no action towards the crows since, the number of scolding crows had grown to 66 percent. Obviously, the crows were “talking” to each other about the humans, passing on the knowledge of the threat between peers and down through generations.
I suppose for some, it can be unsettling to realize that there are other beings besides ourselves who operate on a high level of what we term intelligence. But as far-out as this sounds, I find it rather comforting to know that there are a lot more brains out there that we may someday be able to tap in order to help solve the many problems on Earth that we humans have created.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,