Crows, like most other species from the corvid family (ravens, rooks, etc.), are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, actually rivaling apes and dolphins. Tool use is common among these birds, but where they shine is in their social and emotional intelligence. For instance, a few years ago I reported how ravens point at things with their beaks to relay and communicate insights and intentions with their peers. Eurasian Jays, another corvid, can infer the desire of another bird – say, its partner – and bring it food that it considers at treats (corvids have strong personalities).
There’s never a shortage of new, amazing things we learn about this most gifted family of birds though. Crows, the most familiar bird of the family, possess some of the most amazing social skills in the animal kingdom. A new study published in the journal Ethology, led by Barbara Clucas of Humboldt State University, revealed new dimensions in the crow’s social reasoning. Namely, boggling as it is (remember, we’re talking about a bird), crows can recognize, respond and adapt to specific human faces.
For instance, it was proven that crows take off much sooner when people are heading their way with gaze fixed on the crows, as opposed to people marginally looking the crows’ way. Basically, crows have learned to differentiate between people who are just strolling by them and people who are actually heading their way. Most birds or animals scatter when a human is approaching no matter what. Crows know when to play it cool, and when it’s time to scram. Scientists believe this is a direct response to living in an urban environment, and that’s not that big of a surprise considering it’s been shown urban birds have a significantly larger brain than their rural counterparts.
Proving further on that crows indeed read and respond to human eye contact, John Marzluff of the University of Washington, a co-author of the paper, made a most interesting experiment, for which his patience was duly rewarded. Five years ago, he invited some of his researcher friends for a walk in the park; not your typically promenade, mind you. The researchers were divided into two groups: each would wear a particular type of mask on their faces, however one of the groups would trap crows, while the other would just pass crows by. Fast forward to present day and the findings are nothing short of amazing. The researchers returned to the park with their masks on. The birds present at the original trapping remembered which masks corresponded to capturing—and they passed this information to their young and other crows. All the crows responded to the sight of a researcher wearing a trapping mask by immediately mobbing the individual and shrieking.
“It’s one thing to learn from one’s own experience and another to observe that happening to other individuals and infer it could happen to you,” Marzluff explains.
Indeed this is a fundamental difference, in most instances one that has helped the human race evolve and prosper. This is how teaching is passed on, this is how human culture has been raised. Seeing crows communicate an abstract information or symbol (the particular type of mask associated with trapping) to other crows that did not have first hand, affective information is , to me, mind boggling!
How do crows have such a fine and efficient human face recognition behavior, and moreover such a powerful adaptive capacity? PET scans reveal that when crows viewed human faces that they associated with threat or care, the birds had increased activity in the amygdala, thalamus and brain stem—areas related to emotional processing and fear learning. In response to threatening faces, areas that regulate perception, attention and fleeing also lit up. Similarities to the human brain in this case are most striking.
Again, crows prove they’re some of the most intelligent species on the planet. They use tools, they recognize people’s faces and voices, they can tell when one of their peers has died, and so much more. Truly, they’re amazing animals, unworthy of the ‘harbinger of death’ stigma cast on by people based solely on their appearance. Owls? You’d better refine your wisdom animal totem.
For more on crows and their amazing abilities, check out this informative, but best of all entertaining article from cracked.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.