We’ve seen a few fun bird books this year, including Bird Sense: What It is Like to Be a Bird, a Best of the Month pick in April, and What The Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World. Now comes John Marzluff's captivating Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans. Among other shockers I learned that crows (and their kin, ravens and jays) have huge brains and street smarts, they drink coffee and beer, they use tools and language, and they're even capable of murder.
So we asked the author, What’s the deal with crows? Are they, like, the smartest birds on the planet? Here's what Martzluff, a University of Washington professor, has to say.
Here’s the deal with crows. They are basically flying monkeys. Their brains are as large as a monkey’s brain of their size would be; much larger than other birds. Remember the Wizard of Oz? That pack of flying primates that hunted Dorothy and her companions had nothing (stylish hats and coats aside) on the crows that roam your backyard. The monkeys seemed only to express the emotion of fear or anger, and were fully under the control of the Wicked Witch of the West. Heck in the movie they couldn’t even speak! Crows, on the other hand, always seem to express their free will. They can imitate human voice and often do so! In Montana, one crow was so adept at mimicking a master’s “Here Boy, Come Boy” that it could call dogs, and did so on many occasions. This talking crow even assembled a pack of mutts by flying from house to house and fooling dogs into thinking they were following their owner! With his pack in tow, the crow headed to the University of Montana campus, kept them at attention beneath a tree, and ran them through students as they walked between classrooms! For fun or to possibly dislodge a sandwich remains unknown, but certainly Oz’s monkeys couldn’t do that!
Crows are super smart because they have long lifespans, spend considerable portions of their lives with others in social groups, and learn quickly through trial and error and by observation. Their brains, like our own, allow crows to form lasting, emotionally charged memories. They dream and reconsider what they see and hear before acting (something we aren’t always so good at). They go through their lives much as we do—sensing, considering, forming a plan of action, and adjusting. They can recognize and remember individual people, for years. In Sweden, magpies (close relatives of crows) learned to ring a doorbell whenever they saw the lady of house because she occasionally fed them. Her husband never fed them and even attempted to shoo them away. In retaliation they crapped on his car windshield every morning. It’s a good thing monkeys can’t really fly.
But are crows the smartest birds on the planet? I wouldn’t go quite that far but certainly they are among the smartest. As with people, it is hard to develop a standardized test of intelligence with which to score and rank birds. If the test required making a tool, then the New Caledonia crow would win. If, on the other hand, the test required the creation of a new word, then the African Gray Parrot would likely win. We humans are today administering perhaps the toughest test ever on those with whom we share Earth. Our rapid transformation of land, cooption of resources, and change of climate challenges all plants and animals. To this test, again the crow is well suited. Their large and complex brains allow crows to innovate, intuit, and quickly associate reward and punishment with action. Through this complex cognition they are able to solve whatever humanity throws their way: they adapt to new foods, new lands, new resources, and likely a new climate. So, if the test includes the question “can you live with people?” then crows by their wonderful adaptability will come out at the head of the class.
(The illustration on the right--in which a crow rounds up a pack of dogs--is by Tony Angell, whose drawings and diagrams of mischievous and playful crows appear throughout Gifts of the Crow, a perfect complement to Marzluff's lively storytelling.)