Long ago, in ancient Greece, Aesop’s fables — long-running communal and oral stories Aesop would compile — included a tale about a crow. In it, a thirsty bird finds a pitcher with some water that it cannot reach. After a moment to ponder, the crow finds some nearby pebbles, picks them up, and drops them in the pitcher. Stone by stone, the water rises, until the bird is able to finally drink.
Centuries later, we experience a different form of collecting communal stories, including those about crows. YouTube and TikTok offer a catalogue of black-feathered birds demonstrating the same whimsical intelligence demonstrated in Aesop’s fable. On those platforms, you can see crows interacting with humans by retrieving food from hidden compartments, bringing presents like coins in exchange for food, and even grabbing, then delivering, brushes in order to be gently combed.
The crows’ impressive intelligence demonstrated in these shared interactions — explored by scientists over the last half century or more — has led them to often be referred to as feathered dolphins or chimpanzees due to the qualities they share with some of the earth’s smartest creatures. The journey to recognizing —and appreciating that — has not always, however, been so straightforward.
Historically, crows have occupied a contradictory place in the perceptions of human beings. On the one hand, crows have been derided as scavenging pests, loud bullies, crop destroyers, and ill omens of doom. On the other hand, they have been venerated, even mythologized as representatives of Norse god Odin and symbols of wisdom in Native American culture.
While both perspectives are built on a shared awareness — one begrudging, the other admiring — of crow’s exceptional intelligence, it’s perhaps because of the more dismissive attitudes towards them that until the 20th century their intelligence was more anecdotally perceived instead of scientifically proven. And those who first attempted to do the latter were met with resistance. Author and biologist Bend Heinrich, a pioneer in the study of corvids — the family of birds that include ravens, magpies, crows, and others — recalls his initial attempts to have studies demonstrating their smarts.
“There was resistance to whether or not I was actually showing their intelligence. I said, ‘This proves insight,’ and they wouldn’t believe it,” Heinrich says. “There was a bias that we are so special and anything that’s familiar to us and that we can do is supposedly impossible for other animals.”
John Marzluff, an author and professor of wildlife science who has extensively studied crows, even offers a dedication in his 2012 book “Gifts of the Crow” that alludes to the long-running challenges of giving crows their due. It reads: “To crows, so often maligned, and, the people whom they engage, so often ignored.”
Eric Strauss, President’s Professor of Biology and executive director of the LMU Center for Urban Resilience (CURes), is an authority on animal consciousness and has studied crows. He believes some of that resistance to examining the bird’s intelligence comes from a reluctance to relinquish the belief that humans are special in that regard. “When we look at consciousness across the animal spectrum, one of the initial models was that humans were alone in this idea of consciousness that was given to us by some sort of primal force, and that [it] was a unique characteristic of humans,” Strauss says.
Over time and after extensive scientific study, however, that status has been relinquished, and science has uncovered not just how special crows are, but what they can do and why.
Human beings’ status as the ruling species on this planet is, in good part, because of the abilities of our significant brain. Among the critical sections of that organ is the prefrontal cortex, which regulates our thoughts, emotions, actions and intelligence — including high-functioning cognitive tasks like problem-solving and processing of complex information.
Even though crows’ brains are approximately the size of a human thumb, in proportion to the size of their bodies they are large. And within them is a forebrain region, known as the nidopallium, which enables them to complete heightened cognitive tasks like us. “There has been found to be single neurons that respond to a two-step process. Initially [the nidopallium] responds to the presence of a stimulus, and then it responds to the bird’s perception of that stimulus,” says Carolyn Ristau, an expert in animal cognition at Barnard College in New York.
Heinrich, for example, conducted a test illustrating corvids’ ability to ascertain cause and effect to their benefit. Among Heinrich’s tests was also one attempting to determine if a raven could reach food dangled from a long string — something they had never seen before. After some consideration, the raven figured out that it could get the food by pulling up the string closer, pining it with their foot, pulling up more, and repeating that process till the raven had the food. “In other words,” says Heinrich, “[it] had insight into what the situation was.”
Marzluff has also conducted tests that recreated Aesop’s scenario with the crow and pitcher of water and found the birds could do it. But the most famous experiment highlighting the species’ ability to problem-solve involved a New Caledonian crow named Betty. In 2002, the bird was presented with a vertical tube within which, at the bottom, was a small basket with a handle and some food inside. Researchers placed a wire nearby. After studying the tube for a moment, Betty picked up the nearby wire, stuck it in the tube, and tried to spear the food. When that didn’t work, she instead bent the wire, giving it a hook. She then used that to hook the handle of the basket and pull out the food successfully. (Betty’s problem-solving wasn’t unique to her or the experiment. In the wild, New Caledonians have been found to often make hook tools to scoop insects out of holes or trees.)
But problem-solving is only one among many impressive feats crows can perform.
“Birds really are flying visual sensors, bringing information to their eyes and putting it into their brain to work on and understand,” Marzluff has explained in a 2014 TEDx Talk. Among the information that crows need to understand is their surroundings and what benefits or threats exist there. Especially when it comes to humans.
“In the wild, I would say one of the biggest problems crows have living with people is indeed recognizing good people from bad people,” says Marzluff. There, too, crows’ brains have enabled them to make quick, high-level calculations about their surroundings that not all animals can.
“Not only does an animal have to consider itself, it has to consider all of the other same species and individuals around it,” Strauss says. “Where does it rank? Who’s a risky person? Who’s a friend?” Because crows have existed for millions of years, such a long time of having to make these assessments, it has had a notable effect. “It caused the evolution of this large forebrain.”
It’s the reason why crows have learned to study and recognize faces, flying away when an oncoming person makes eye contact with them, staying put when a person isn’t paying them any attention. But, more significantly, it’s why they can remember faces.
In a widely covered story, Marzluff demonstrated just how significantly crows can do this. In an experiment he conducted, Marzluff divided a group of researchers into two groups and took them to a pre-selected area. One group was responsible for trapping the crows. They would wear threatening-looking masks. The second group would simply pass and ignore the crows. They would wear a neutral face mask. Several weeks later — after trapping and passing — the two groups returned. The crows proceeded to mob the group wearing the threatening masks and scold them — loud cawing and wing-flapping at a perceived threat. They ignored the group with the neutral masks.
In other words, the crows had associated the negative experience of being trapped with the faces of those who had done it to them. “They do it exactly like you do. They have the same nerve cells in their brain that you have, and their neurons make physical connections between different places,” Marzluff told the audience of his TEDx Talk. “By making those physical connections like you do, birds can form spatially explicit and emotionally charged memories of events.” That may prove significant for their ongoing co-habitation with human beings.
Crows have existed for millions of years. Once humans came along, they — like raccoons and coyotes —became a synanthropic species, living near people and benefiting from the environment they create. The relationship between the two species is one that is perhaps changing, however, in part due to climate change, and limited resources in the wild driving crows into more urban settings where there is more abundance of garbage, roadkill, and more.
As urban growth continues to accelerate across the country, more and more crows will make their way into urban environments. “As resources get denser, territories get smaller. Which is why the population density of crows in cities is so high,” says Strauss. That can be seen already in and around Los Angeles, where crows are drawn to because there’s a fertile combination of edible human foodstuffs and tree canopies, where they feel safe. Crows roost at night in the hundreds in El Segundo, near the old Raytheon facility. They congregate along the greenway running behind Venice Beach. At the edges of the city, where the urban and rural blend, like Malibu Hills, Topanga Canyon, and Hollywood Hills, the crows are there, too.
It poses the question then of how mankind’s already contradictory relationship with crows will be impacted as they become more pervasive throughout small and big cities. Will people come to appreciate or resent crows more? Traditionally, according to Strauss, we’ve tended to ignore them. “As humans, avoidance is a technique that we use, because it’s the least amount of effort. But we don’t learn anything from avoidance,” he says.
Strauss believes we need to start learning more from crows, and that requires us to rethink the relationship altogether. “What is the optimum relationship that we can have with crows?” he posits, is a question we’ll need to ask ourselves. “What is the right way to coexist with wildlife around us so that we can thrive and they can thrive?”
The work being done by the likes of Marzluff and his peers will be critical to our mutual future. “Their work with crows is really inviting, and I would even say demanding, us to begin to think of our relationship with nature differently,” Strauss says.
The answer to finding out more about crows’ remarkable nature is ongoing. “We constantly keep discovering new items,” Ristau says with enthusiasm. Experiments continue to study the extent of their intelligence and consciousness, either through observation or close examination of their brain processes. Studies continue to explore their unique behaviour, such as the distinct vocalizations they produce to communicate with each other, or the possibility when crows gather around a dead compatriot, they may be doing so to determine what the cause of death was in order to learn from it. In understanding them better, we can perhaps learn to live together better, she suggests.
Whatever the case, there’s no doubt crows will continue to navigate the world, employing their intelligence to adapt to it as needed. They — like another species — are already used to that. “Crows living in groups and interacting with other members of their species and other species requires you to be crafty and smart. Kind of like us,” Marzluff says.
Alexander Huls is a writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Esquire, Popular Mechanics and elsewhere. His “The Dogs That Save Us” appeared in the summer 2021 (Vol. 10, No. 1) issue of LMU Magazine. Follow him @alxhuls.