November 21, 2017

Crows – 5 Amazing Cognitive Behaviors You Won’t Believe

Crows are found on every continent except Antarctica and (for some odd reason) South America. Esteemed by those familiar with them, crows are renowned for their intellectual prowess. However, this bird is capable of behaviors that stir disbelief among even the most credulous. It’s easy to understand the skepticism. Here are 5 amazing feats of avian cognition.



Nesting Behavior

Nesting Behavior

Fashioning intricate nests is normal bird behavior. To scavenge material discarded by humans may also be normal, but the crow takes it one step further: They modify their plunder. Crows will confiscate a wire coat-hanger, and diligently mold the pliable metal with their beak while holding it with their feet. They bend and reshape it into a circular shape, and when it meets their needs they incorporate it into the nest.


A Tough Nut To Crack

A Tough Nut To Crack

Crows have found a surprising method to crack nuts. First, they pick up a nut and assess its weight. They then fly to just the right altitude and drop it, cracking the shell on the cement below. They won’t fly so high as to shatter the precious cargo inside, but they’ve learned to gain just enough height to release it.

Although this is ingenious, they have one more astonishing trick up their sleeve. They drop the nuts at intersections. Why? They literally wait for the traffic light to change, so that A) the nut won’t get squished by a car, and B) the bird won’t get squished by a car.


The Right Tool For The Job

The capacity to make and use tools seems like a uniquely human characteristic. It is shared, however, by a few select members of the animal kingdom, including the crow. That they use tools to hunt insects is well-known.

Not so well-known, however, crows will use an imperfect tool to retrieve just the right tool, and then proceed to use the correct tool for the task at hand. If just the right tool happens to be unavailable they resort to manufacturing it themselves. These are very complex and demanding cognitive behaviors, unique among avian species.

Until crows were found to use them, barbed tools were believed to be used by mankind alone. This is now known to be false. The crow regularly makes hooked or barbed tools, used to extract grubs, from two different materials.

In New Caledonia, they manufacture at least four distinctly different tools from the leaf of the pandanus plant. Regional variations of these tools indicate a culture of tool use – the learning and passing on of information from one to another in the social group.

Crows don’t just use tools: They use them often, they use different tools for different tasks, and they manufacture them. When it comes to tool use, the top ranked contenders are: (1) humans, (2) crows, and (3) chimpanzees. The number two and three positions are still hotly contested.


Don’t I Know You?

Don’t I Know You?

Crows have an uncanny ability to recognize human faces, and remember how they were treated by that person. They know who’s who even if you’re wearing a hat, or hiding in a crowd the next time they see you.

While performing a study in Seattle, scientists devised an experiment to reveal whether crows paid attention to individual faces. If so, they wanted to know if the crow remembered those faces. The answer is a definitive yes to both questions. Team members wore masks while capturing and tagging individual birds. They returned periodically over time with some wearing the masks, and some without.

The crows dive-bombed and otherwise harassed the masked members, clearly recognizing the danger posed by these individuals. Being in a crowd provided no relief. The crows spotted their mark, and exhibited their usual uncouth behavior while leaving those without a mask unmolested.

Most amazing perhaps, they continued this behavior for almost four years. It’s no surprise individual birds that witnessed the trappings, or were themselves trapped, remembered and reacted to the masks. But remarkably, this information seems to have been transmitted to their young, and to other adults that may not have witnessed the incident.


The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away

Crows are known to eat just about anything, including fish. Many other species also eat fish, of course; it’s common in a bird’s diet. What is uncommon is the technique used to get the fish: Crows have been documented luring fish with bait. Baiting fish is known to happen infrequently in very few species other than humans.

Crows drop their bread into water, wait patiently, and then snatch up unsuspecting fish. As the crow successfully retrieves his prize and flies off for dinner, certain questions naturally arise: Does the crow consciously decide to exchange his bread for fish? Do they understand the fish may eat the bread, escape, and leave them with zilch? Do crows tell stories of ‘the big one that got away’?


The crow is certainly worthy of respect. When it performs a difficult mental task like counting, for example – yes, they can – it illuminates the fact that mankind isn’t really all that special. Mimicking and acquiring vocabularies as impressively as a parrot seems minor when compared to their other, more extraordinary abilities.

The using and making of tools, long-term facial recognition, memory recall, and a wide variety of other cognitive abilities suggest that crows are called “feathered apes” for a good reason: they are the intellectual kings of the avian jungle.

Read more: How To Care For Finches

Lucy Sheppard

Hi, I’m Lucy Sheppard. I love pets, especially dogs. My love for these true friends of humans turned into a passion. This passion led me to start this pets website so that people like me can benefit from my study and research.

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