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What a Crow Knows

Kristine England

That murder of crows squawking in your backyard is probably smarter than you imagine. Members of the Corvidae family have long had a cartoonishly sinister reputation in popular culture and folklore as a scheming, thieving black bird.  In fact, magpies can be richly hued, ranging from a striking black and white with a blue splash above its long tail feathers to vivid green with bright red bills.  Some are turquoise, others amber and many other varieties exist around the globe.  While it may be a bit of anthropomorphism to suggest it, they seem to possess a haughty swagger and are clearly stars of the avian world.

As members of the Corvidae family, magpies, crows, ravens, and their relatives are among the most intelligent animals in our midst.  Studies have concluded they possess some cognitive processes on par with chimpanzees.  They may share some neuroses of homo sapiens too.

It was recently reported they outsmarted researchers who were testing their ability to solve problems.  The humans had set up an experiment in which the birds were to given a tool to open a box, for which they received a treat. They accomplished the task more than 80% of the time. Between each round, the researchers removed the box and placed the tool elsewhere, but the birds retrieved the tool and waited for the box’s return to get at that tasty reward.  One of the birds went even further, figuring out another way to open the box without the tool.

They can also think abstractly enough to mimic paranoia, pretending to hide their food in one place, employing subterfuge to fool rivals, and cunningly moving their feast to another spot.  It doesn’t always work, but other tests have shown that they behave differently if they think they are being watched.  

In one case, ravens raised in captivity were placed in a room with a covered window with a small peephole flap that could be left open or closed. At first, the window was left uncovered so the birds had full view of anything happening outside the room.  Once the window was blocked, the birds were trained that they could see and be seen through the peephole.  When the hole was open, the birds took extra care in storing their food.  If closed, they behaved normally, even if other birds could be heard in the distance.  In light of such studies, researchers concluded the animals were aware of when they could be spied upon and acted accordingly.

Another point of interest is their capacity to think analogously.  They have exhibited an aptitude for identifying like and unlike objects from one another.  Testing with items of different shapes and colors suggested complex thinking once reserved only for warm-blooded creatures.

They manage these abstractions without the virtue of a mammalian neocortex,  the layers of the cerebral cortex that are responsible for higher brain functions like emotions, language, cognition and computation, among others.  They appear to have excellent memories too, and can recognize faces of both friend and foe.


How does the walnut-sized bird brain of a corvid mimic such human behaviors? It’s in the neurons, early studies suggest, busily transmitting messages to the nucleus NCL (nidopallium caudolaterale), an area that seems to mimic the neocortex.  

Neuroscience has just begun to delve into the mysteries of the corvid brain, so there is likely much more to be discovered.  It just goes to show, we aren’t really sure what a crow knows.

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