Nature Note 107: Bird Brain is a Compliment! - American Crow

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Nature Note

Bird Brain is a Compliment! - American Crow

American crow photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

American crow photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A sign of the change of season from late autumn toward winter is the seasonal movement of crows within the woodlands near my home. Their daily rounds now include a flyby or two of the yard and time in the trees close to the house. I enjoy watching them search for food and their interactions with each other. I listen for their caws overhead when I am on the trail and will often caw back. Sometimes one will caw again and follow overhead, probably hoping that my feet will stir up something edible before it departs toward the pond or better hunting elsewhere.

I've not always been enamored with crows. As a child of five or six, a babysitter let me watch Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds. Not long after, a group of crows descended on the freshly washed and decorated bicycle I was slowly riding in front of my house. I jumped off my bike, screamed, and ran for the house. It took several years before my natural inquisitiveness and love of animals prevailed so that crows were no longer sources of great fear. And now, I cannot imagine not being able to observe and learn from crows. Perhaps those crows of my youth were just attracted by my bike's decorations and wanted to take a closer look. I'd placed playing cards in the spokes, tassels on the handles, and shined up the chrome... it was quite a sight, and the cards made a terrific sound as I rode.

Crows are very intelligent. They recognize themselves in mirrors, can remember the faces of people, use tools, play, can work in teams, plan for the future, assess problems, and think them through. Crows have been observed dropping nuts in the road so that the tires of passing cars will crack them open, and cooperating at a drinking fountain to get water, one crow holding the button down while the other takes a sip of water. 

Crows and other corvids (ravens, jays, and magpies) have long been thought of as having some intelligence, but humans have long been stuck on the belief that animals with small brains, or brains without the same features as humans must lack intelligence. And therein we err, as long as we use ourselves as the measuring stick for all animals, we will miss seeing them for what they are. I'm reminded of a passage from Outermost House by Henry Beston, “In a world older and more complex than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” Yes, Henry, we need a wiser concept of animals. A crow's center of thinking, which does not take place in the same area as a human brain, nor does its small brain size make for low intelligence – they have much smaller and more densely packed neurons in their brain – about 1.5 billion of them! If we used our size logic on technology, we'd have it all wrong. Original computers were huge and filled entire rooms... now we have small smartphones that far exceed the abilities of those first large computers.

What more could we learn and understand if we changed the way we think about the beings that share Earth with us?

Raven silhouette in flight.

Crow Intelligence in Action

Take a Crow & Raven ID Test

Natural History, Photos, and Vocalizations

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