Crafty crows

Much has been written about the intelligence of crows, the supposed smartest of bird species.

American Crows must have keen eyesight because they detect my slightest movement (like raising the camera lens toward the window) and quickly fly off.

American Crows must have keen eyesight because they detect my slightest movement (like raising the camera lens toward the window) and quickly fly off. Large brain size and a well-developed cortical area responsible for learned behavior may be what gives them their smarts.

They make and use tools to retrieve food items, organize mobs to drive away predators (a “murder” of crows), use bait to attract prey, watch and learn new behaviors from other birds or their own family members, communicate spatial and temporal information (about food items) to other family members, and can recognize the facial features of different humans.  Some researchers claim that crows have intelligence on a par with that of chimpanzees.

I have watched a lot of crow behavior in the backyard, but rarely understand what is going on, except for these two examples from the past week.

One crow picked up some straw from the garden, hopped to the bird bath, and dropped the straw into it, swizzled it around, picked it up and flew off.  Was this done to make the straw more flexible for weaving into a nest?

One crow picked up a stick from the garden, hopped to the bird bath, and dropped the stick in, swizzled it around, then picked it up and flew off. Was this done to make the stick more flexible for weaving into a nest? Or is this a young bird just learning how to make its own tools?

Another crow did the same thing with a slightly larger stick, soaking it for a minute or two before flying off with it.

Another crow did the same thing with a slightly larger stick, soaking it for a minute or two before flying off with it.  Perhaps this was to be used in nest building.  Crow nests are elaborately and tightly woven large platforms that are often used by raptors the next season.

There has been a lot of crow social interaction in the backyard lately, with several individuals congregating in one tree or another, calling to each other about something or other.  But one interaction between crows was a little different.

Begging behavior from last year's offspring?  At first the older bird ignores this youngster.

Is this begging behavior? At first the beggar is ignored, or seems to be ignored.

Youngster lowers its body, opens its beak wider, squawking at the adult.

The beggar lowers its body, opens its beak wider, squawking at the adult, which seems to be getting it noticed by the other bird.

Well, it must have worked, because the adult did finally give up something to this youngster.

Well, it must have worked, because the adult(?) did finally give up something to this persistent beggar.

Crows might be in the final stages of nest building now, egg laying and incubation takes about 20 days, nestling growth another 35 days, so I am pretty sure this is a youngster reared last year.  Juvenile offspring take at least two years to mature and stick around the parents’ territory to “help” (some say they don’t help very much) rear the next crop of chicks. Such prolonged dependence on adults, as well as the cooperative social interactions of close-knit family groups, is an indicator of complex behaviors often associated with higher intelligence.

Whole books have been written about the complex behaviors of crows and ravens, some authors arguing that the complex social behavior of crows mimics that of humans and that our own cultural evolution has been influenced by them.  Some of us might take issue with that — but you can read more about this here.

in the company of crows and ravens

8 thoughts on “Crafty crows

  1. Crows almost disappeared from the Chicago area during the West Nile outbreak but now their numbers are going back up. I like to watch them too. There are a few that hang out in my Cottonwood tree, make lots of noise and even chase hawks, but rarely land in the yard. The exception was to steal a nestling for a meal. Not pretty to watch, but educational – I didn’t realize they took more than eggs.

  2. I have a few crows swirling around my little yard in The Netherlands. They scare the little birds away when I scatter some food but ‘stand their ground’ when some bullies fly in…the sea gulls!

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