While it has been known for a long time that crows are smart birds, we may have underestimated their brainpower until recently. One example that demonstrates this is that they can tell the difference between friend and foe, and pass that information on to other crows.
Crows learn to associate faces and places with danger or benefits and can communicate this information to other crows. In addition to being extremely observant of humans they are also observant of other crows. This allows for information about friendly or helpful animals, or about dangerous areas such as busy intersections, to be passed down for generations.
In an experiment ten years ago led by John Marzluff, a biologist at the University of Washington, people wearing caveman masks trapped crows around the University’s Seattle campus. When they returned, once again wearing the caveman masks, they were attacked by the crows. However, it wasn’t just the previously captured crows that attacked; other crows had apparently witnessed the incident and remembered the masks. When the group returned wearing different or no masks, the birds left them alone.
The research group continues to check to see if the birds remember the masks and associate them with danger. Even though it’s been a decade and the crows captured in the original experiment are most likely dead, the message has been passed down. The new generations of birds see their peers attacking and join in, having learned of the risks from their fellow crows.
Another strange behavior crows exhibit is hosting “funerals” around a dead member of their species. Little was known about why these birds gathered, but Kaeli Swift, a student of Marzluff’s, was curious. Was it grief, respect, or something else entirely that led the crows to gather?
In her experiment, Swift fed crows in the same spot for three days. Once they had associated the spot with food, Swift faked one of three scenes that could scare the crows away. In these scenes, a masked volunteer held a stuffed crow (perceived by the birds as dead), stood near a lifelike taxidermy Red-tailed Hawk, or both.
For three days after the tests, crows would be measurably slower to approach the area for handouts. The researchers concluded that crow “funerals” are an important learning opportunity about possible dangers.
Crows ability to associate people and locations with danger could lead them to be regarded as some of the smartest birds in the world.