Wilderness Underfoot: A genius among birds

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11351943003282.jpg’, ”, ‘American crow – Corvus brachyrhynchos is seen everywhere in the U.S., except the desert Southwest. The sex of the crow can’t be distinguished by its color; males and females are black from head to tail. Crows are our largest “songbirds," with wingspans reaching 40 inches. These much-maligned birds have survived aggressive hunting, poisoning and even roost bombings, but in our state the greatest impact on their numbers has been from West Nile virus.’);

The intelligence of crows continues to surprise even their greatest admirers (and detractors)

The family of birds known as Corvids—including crows, ravens and jays—all happen to have exceptionally large brains for their body weight. Their intelligence shows: while other animals often rely on simple instinctive behaviors to go about their daily lives, crows and their kin are as smart and adaptive as the great apes.

Crows are omnivorous, eating a variety of plants and animals—and not caring too much whether their meals are alive, dead, or long dead. Chances are you’ve seen these large birds happily picking on roadkill. Their beaks aren’t built for tearing apart flesh, so they let the cars do the messy work for them. Unlike the poor, dumb creatures that stumble into the path of oncoming traffic, crows carefully calculate how long they can dawdle and eat before it’s time to fly away.

Being skilled pedestrians is only the beginning of their capabilities, however. In Japan, they’ve been observed placing walnuts on the road in front of vehicles that were stopped at red lights. When the lights changed, the cars rolled over the walnuts and crushed them to expose the nutmeats. When the traffic stopped for the next red light, the crows ate the nuts.

They seem to understand the advantage of letting others do their work for them. One clever crow trick is to creep up on a predatory bird, such as a hawk or eagle, and pull its tail feathers. When the bird turns to look, another crow sneaks in and steals its prey! Taking food from animals that could easily kill them requires skill and intelligence. Crows are born thieves.

They rob the eggs from the nests of birds, they take other animals’ offspring, and they steal anything they can carry away from humans. Food isn’t the only thing that attracts them; they’re known for snatching shiny things or odd objects that pique their curiosity. After stealing these items, they hide them in secret caches where they also store extra food.

Here’s a short list of other mental feats performed by crows: counting as high as seven, learning to talk and mimic other creatures, dropping mussels and nuts from the sky to break them open, pulling up fishing lines and stealing fish, using twigs and other objects as tools—and—building tools when other objects aren’t suitable. These birds are especially bright social animals with complex, long-lived relationships.

From the Dec. 21-27, 2005, issue

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