What it Means to be Bird-Brained

Besides humans, what other animals would you consider intelligent? Dogs? Cats? What about crows? They may not be the first creature that springs to mind when you think about intellect, but did you know the Corvid family of crows have proven themselves to be anything but bird-brained?

One of a few animals able to recognize themselves in a mirror, the Corvids exhibit an impressive self-awareness and have even been known to use tools to help them forage for food! They also have a highly evolved social structure, and recent studies show that they even have the capacity to grieve and mourn for their fallen brothers.

Investigating the “Bird-Brained” Crows

Bird-brained crowUniversity of Washington Ph.D student, Kaeli Swift, conducted a two year investigation into the crows behavior which covered 100 different Seattle locations. Food was placed at the sites to attract the birds and then volunteers stood in clear view of the crows doing one of four things:

  1. Holding a dead crow
  2. Standing near a dead red-tailed hawk (a predator to crows)
  3. Standing near the dead hawk while holding a dead crow, or
  4. Doing nothing at all

The volunteers wore expressionless latex masks as a control measure, because crows can memorize human faces.

Holy Crow!

The study found that crows were extremely cautious of feeding around the people holding the dead crows, loudly scolding or even dive bombing the volunteers. Experts hypothesized that the crows were trying to alert and warn each other of a potential threat at their food source. The most extreme reaction was to the volunteers holding a dead crow while next to a dead hawk; the crows would even scold volunteers in the following weeks if they came back empty handed, showing that they recognize and remember the original threat.

Swift also conducted a second experiment where the masked volunteers presented a taxidermied pigeon instead of a dead crow. In this case, the visiting crows reacted less, scolding volunteers only 40% of the time. Swift concluded that the crows were more sensitive to seeing their own dead over other birds.

Not only that, but in another similar investigation involving only pigeons, researchers found that the live pigeons didn’t react upon seeing a dead friend at all.

This suggests that crows may be unique in how they warn each other of threats. Amazing!

So, the next time the phrase bird-brained comes to mind, remember that the humble crow is in an avian league of its own!