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Counting Crows

by Belinda Recio


A friend used to be a wildlife rehabilitator, and, years ago she helped a crow recover from a wing injury. The crow, named “Derek,” was young and quickly bonded with her entire family, including her black lab, Jake. When my friend was away from home for any length of time, Derek would show as much excitement and pleasure when she returned as any dog would.

He vocalized softly and rubbed his head against her hand, seemingly delighted to be back in her company. Derek also had a thing for Jake, and would gently peck at his paws and try to preen his fur. Luckily, Jake liked Derek, and welcomed his antics.

They even had a favorite game in which Derek grabbed Jake’s collar and hung on like a rodeo cowboy as Jake raced around the yard.

My friend’s stories about Derek piqued my interest in crows, ravens, magpies and other members of the corvidae family. Corvids are not only extremely intelligent birds they are among the most intelligent of all animals, including mammals. Since the 18th century, farmers have known that crows are capable of counting, which is the origin of the expression, “counting crows.” Today, scientists know they are far more complex than we ever imagined. Crows make and use tools, demonstrate self-awareness, communicate complicated information in group-specific dialects, play games with one another, socialize with family and friends, and have a brain-to-body mass ratio equal to apes and dolphins.

British zoologist Christopher Bird recently conducted a study at Cambridge University inspired by one of Aesop’s fables, “The Crow and the Pitcher,” The tale tells of a thirsty crow that finds a pitcher of water, but the level is too low for him to reach. The clever crow drops pebbles into the pitcher until the water level rises and he can take a drink.

In Bird’s experiment, he tempted four rooks (members of the corvid family) with a worm that floated—out of reach—on the surface of water in a test tube. Bird videotaped the rooks as they appeared to assess the situation, circling the tube and considering their options. He then provided a pile of pebbles. The rooks did exactly what Aesop’s crow did. They raised the water level by dropping pebbles into the tube, until the worm was within their reach.

Even more impressive, the rooks selected larger pebbles, accomplishing their goal faster. The only other animal that has shown the same sophisticated understand- ing of fluid mechanics is an orangutan.

One of the most fascinating aspects of crow intelligence is their ability to deceive. Like many animals, crows cache food, but unlike other animals, crows will sometimes simply pretend to cache food if other crows are nearby. Instead of actually leaving the food in their cache, they tuck it into their chest feathers and fly off to another one of their cache locations out of sight of the watching crows. Unfortunately, sometimes the watching crows will follow the caching crow to its alternate cache in an attempt to outsmart one of their own.

Crows and ravens have a bold and unapologetic presence, and are not easily scared away by people or other animals. They appear to act out of rage, jealousy, devotion, affection, and even a sense of humor. They can be suspicious, fun loving, deceitful, and mischievous. In many ways, they are far more like people than we ever imagined, and we’ve only just begun to understand them. This makes them great fun to watch.


Federal law prohibits keeping native crows and ravens for pets. These birds—and most other wild birds—are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to hunt, capture, kill or sell any of the over 800 birds listed in the statute. If you are interested in crows, ravens, and other corvids, consider volunteering at a bird sanctuary. A good place to research what sort of volunteering opportunities exist near you is your local Audubon chapter. Visit http://www.audubon.org/search-by-zip to find a near-by chapter.

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