Something about humans makes us desire to learn about animals. We utilize satellite transmitters on them, radio collars, trail cameras, and other methods to discover more about their lives and secrets.

In that case, I find it interesting when we learn that wildlife is watching us.

That couldn’t be more true than with crows. Corvids, a group of stout-billed birds, have been the subject of a lot of research in the last few decades. Crows, jays, magpies, and ravens are examples of this. With traffic, crows can crack hard-to-crack nuts and find out how to solve a complex puzzle.

And just recently, we found out that they are as smart, in some ways, as a seven-year-old child. They are also watching us to learn more about ourselves.

A researcher double-checks the fit of a GPS radio collar after catching a wolf from the Chesnimnus pack in Oregon. ©Baker Aircraft, Fish and Wildlife Department of Oregon

Crows act like seven-year-olds.

Before the 21st century, birds mainly were thought of as simpletons. As a result, how smart can you be with a brain that is the size of a nut? This led to taunts like calling someone a “bird brain.”

However, a lot of research has shown that birds make good use of the limited space in their brains by having a lot of neurons. This is more than mammals, which have less room for neurons. One of the most intelligent birds is crows.


Among other things, crows understand analogies, exercise self-control, and make tools and like to play. These are all signs of what we call “intelligence.”

Crows have about the same brainpower as a seven-year-old human, according to an article in the science journal PLOS ONE that came out in July 2014. The authors say that crows are just as good at reasoning as humans are in the article.


Crows can perform reasoning tasks at a level comparable to a human seven-year-old. ©Linda Tanner, Flickr

In this study, scientists put six wild crows through a series of tests that made them think about causal relationships differently. It was all based on Aesop’s fable in which a thirsty crow drops stones to raise the water level in a pitcher.

Crows had to figure out how to get floating food rewards by putting heavy objects into water-filled tubes. These people could choose things that would sink rather than float. They could select a high-water-level tube over one with a low water level because they wanted to get the food with the least amount of work. Water-filled tubes were also the choice for them. The crows stuffed the tubes with enough boulders or other heavy items to make accessing the food inside easy.

According to the University of Cambridge, children have a difficult time completing this task. The rules could be learned by children aged seven to ten. They had to figure out how it worked a few times before they got it. They were stumped as to how to handle the challenge for children aged 4 to 6. When they put stones in tubes, it wasn’t always the same way they got the token, which was their version of the crows’ food reward. Even still, when they undertook a water displacement test, the crows performed admirably at a level that only children aged seven to ten have been able to achieve.

They do this even though we don’t know how. Crows tell other crows what they’ve learned. ©cuatrok77, Flickr


Crows are learning about how people act.

Crows have a fantastic memory for the faces of people. They can hold grudges against some of us, and they can tell other crows, too. In fact, they seem to know that each person is different and that they need to treat each of us in different ways.

When two researchers from the University of Washington went to trap, band, and release seven to 15 crows near Seattle in 2011, they wore the same “dangerous” mask. They did this at five different places near Seattle.

To find out how the captures affected the crow population, people who walked a designated route over the next five years observed the birds’ behavior. One of the trapping sites was on the road. These people used a neutral mask or one of the more dangerous masks worn during the first trapping events to keep an eye on the group.

During the first two weeks after the trapping, an average of 26% of the crows scolded the person wearing the mask. During the next 15 months, that figure had risen to 30.4 percent. Scolding crows had grown by 66% in three years. They hadn’t done anything to stop the crows since that time. So, it’s clear that the birds talked about humans. They passed on the knowledge of the danger to each other and their offspring.



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