Have you ever wondered what’s it like to be a crow? Well, I have, and apparently, it’s not all that different from what it’s like to be a human. For one thing, a murder of crows is a community of monogamous family units, much like a human tribe. As part of this lifestyle, young crows spend up to five years with their parents, which is the longest natal period of any bird. This is one of the many different reasons that crows grow up to be so smart. To do this they communicate to each other with a rather unusual set of sounds and songs. For instance, they have numerous different warning calls specific to unique threats like cats, hawks, and humans. Scientists have already identified more than 250 distinct crow calls. Along with this, each speaker has a unique voice with two different dialects. The louder version is for the crow community at large, while the quiet version is only spoken among an extended family. They talk to each other all the time and this requires them to have really advanced linguistic skills. Plus, along with being able to make and use tools better than chimpanzees, crows are also really good at solving fairly difficult problems, even in artificial laboratory settings. The point is that they are very resourceful animals.
Crows are highly adaptable, so they can be found all over the world, and part of the reason that they are so smart is because of what they eat. For instance, the crows that live in big cities memorize local garbage truck routes to know the best time to scavenge for food in the trash. Crows will eat almost anything, including carrion. Like people, some crows are even cannibals. They even do food caching and use their theory of mind to make sure that other crows don’t see them stash it away. Sometimes crows even pretend to bury their food but actually keep it tucked away in their pouch, in order to find out if there are any thieves among them. Along with being highly intelligent, these birds are also very empathic. Again, this is the result of the fact that crows are naturally omnivorous, which creates and consumes a lot of brainpower.
Corvid birds are highly sophisticated creatures, to say the least. Like elephants and humans, crows even mourn the dead. The thing is that they do it en masse. Plus, crows are part of a group of very sophisticated birds called the corvids, which includes magpies, ravens, jays, and more. This is important because magpies are able to recognize themselves in a mirror, which is something that most animals simply can’t do. The point is that this is a fairly ancient group of animals, capable of highly complex cognition. The oldest fossil evidence of corvids dates to about 17 million years ago, long before anything even remotely resembling a human. The prehistoric corvid genera stemmed from New World and Old World jay and Holarctic magpie lineages. Presently, though, the crow family includes a number of species, many of which are highly intelligent, and have been for a really long time.
As a hallmark of their intelligence, crows keep track of everything that happens to them. Crows are actually so intelligent that whenever a murder becomes too invasive, both humans and hawks have to team up together to drive them out. Neither group of animals can do it on their own. Crows are so smart that the mayor of Chatham, Canada once tried to rid the town by introducing a shooting competition, but as soon as the first crow was shot the word got out among them and they soon figured out just how high to fly to avoid being hit. The point is that they learn from each other’s mistakes. As another example, if a farmer kills a crow then the murder will change their migratory paths to avoid his fields for the next couple of years. The members of the murder will also be able to recognize his face and remember what he did to one of them. First, though, they will often land at the site of the dead crow’s corpse and stand in a moment of silence. Then they all just fly away together without making a sound. I’ve heard that a crow funeral is a very eerie sight indeed. The point is that crows have cultural traditions that are passed on as memes from parents to children, just like us.
The thing to understand is that corvids are brilliant birds with highly complex brains. For instance, biologists know that the Japanese jungle crow is one of nature’s best construction workers. Along with this, in 1993 scientists from the University of Auckland discovered that New Caledonian crows even make and use tools. They don’t just randomly find tiny twigs, they intentionally make spears from scratch. New Caledonian crows find the best stick that they can, with very special criteria in mind. Then, they break a branch off at a very difficult spot right below a fork. They trim off the side branches and then break the spear tip right at the base of the fork to create a barb, as shown in the image above. The hook tool that they make prevents their prey from wriggling off of the end once they’ve been struck. A tremendous amount of planning and effort goes into making one of these weapons. More importantly, out of all the millions of different kinds of animals on Earth, only humans, elephants, chimpanzees, and crows seem to be able to use tools. Of these, only humans and crows have ever invented hooks.
The complex cognitive abilities of crows are highly controversial, to say the least. As far as I can tell, crows and their corvid kin have personhood. Most people don’t grant them that status, but I do. It wouldn’t surprise me if crows are actually as superstitious of us as we are of them. Corvids have psyches very similar to ours. As I mentioned earlier, there are very few animals that have passed the self-recognition mirror test, including a few different apes, bottlenose dolphins, Asian elephants, and one particular kind of bird, namely the magpie. Helmut Prior and his colleagues at Goethe University applied a red, yellow, or black spot to a place on the necks of five magpies. The stickers could only be seen using a mirror. The feel of the mark on their necks didn’t bother them, but when the birds with colored neck spots caught a glimpse of themselves, they scratched at their necks. Meanwhile, those who received a black sticker, which was invisible against their neck feathers, did not react. The significance of this is that magpies are aware of their own reflection, and this requires a tremendous depth of soul. Magpies, ravens, and all the other corvids are quite remarkable indeed. Ultimately, I guess what I’m getting at is that we need to think of crows as people, or at the very least to think of humans as animals. I prefer the former to the latter, but either way, the point remains the same.