The genius of crows

Crows, ravens, jackdaws, and rooks are pretty much indistinguishible to most people. Try this quiz question (answer at the bottom of the page).

Which bird is this?

a  A crow

b A jackdaw

c A raven

d A rook

Image from the RSPB website: http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide

We often can’t tell these birds apart, even at the species level. However, these birds have no problems telling individual human beings apart. This is because this family of birds is amongst the most intelligent of all animals.

Aesop has a tale about a crow who fills a jar with stones to raise the level of the water and get a drink. This is true. In an experiment where a worm was kept out a reach of their beaks, crows not only learned the trick in moments, they even used the larger stones to get the job done quicker.

Ravens have a huge range of vocalisations to the extent that they could be said to have a language. In the USA, they have  noticed distinct dialects in the calls: so you could have one crow that sounds like a bumpkin and another like a tweedy intellectual from ‘the Village’: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/common-raven

Barring accidents, the birds of this family pair for life, which makes them a lot more loyal than many human beings.

Is insane curiosity a prerequisite of intelligence? Carrion crows are pyromaniacs and occasionally bring back burning objects  to their nests. Why is it that I assume that only the male birds do that?

The birds also use cars to break nuts on the road, and then wait for the lights to change before picking up the pieces: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Carrion_Crow#p007xvww

If you think that’s impressive, just look at this video where a crow passes its entry test for The Crystal Maze (Richard O’Brien does not appear in this clip): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8631486.stm

Members of the crow family do not only use their intelligence in practical ways: they also know how to have fun. Ravens have been observed playing on snow drifts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvus_corax#cite_note-69.

So when I had to choose birds that would carry messages on behalf of my main villain, István in The Adventures of Siskin and Valderan, the crow was the obvious choice. A snippet from the book appears in my next blog.

Quiz answer: it’s a rook (d)!

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