Inside Out | Beyond the caw: Exploring intelligence, adaptability of American crow

By Chicago 5 Min Read

I went to visit my parents earlier this year and noticed my dad screwing a large plastic tray to his garden fence.

He said he was making an area that he could trade objects with the local American crow population.

There have been many videos going around of people leaving objects out for crows and returning to see that the object has been taken and a new object was in its place.

University of Washington scientists have coined the phrase “gifting” to describe this.

My dad was going to put out small shiny objects to see if it would interest the local crows.

So far, he hasn’t had any luck.

From this interaction, I went into a deep dive on the internet on American crows and why they would leave “gifts” to people.

Kaeli Swift, animal behaviorist at the University of Washington, thinks “gifting” starts out as an accident.

Crows are curious and pick up objects then lose interest and leave it behind.

If the crow happened to leave an object where humans put out something like food, those humans might get excited and leave even more food.

The crow would associate leaving objects in this spot with receiving food.

American crows are very common birds found all over the state of Illinois but seem to have a bad rap, being called bad omens or synonymous with death.

With further research on the internet, I have found that crows are surprisingly smart, adaptive, social creatures.

Did you know crows can memorize human faces?

John Marzluff, wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, performed an experiment that determined they do indeed recognize and remember human faces.

While trapping and banding birds on campus, the researchers would wear latex caveman masks.

When they later returned to those locations without the masks, the crows ignored them.

But anybody who showed up with the caveman mask would cause the crows to dive-bomb them.

It wasn’t just the birds that were originally trapped; other crows who witnessed the trapping also followed pursuit of the masked individuals.

Crows also congregate around a fellow dead crow like they are having a funeral.

It starts with one crow sounding an alarm call, which brings others in.

They then gather around the dead crow making loud scolding sounds.

John Marzluff did an experiment to understand why they do this.

They found that it was to identify what caused the crow’s death and to spread the word about potential dangers.

If you still aren’t convinced that crows are smart, adaptive creatures, you may find it interesting that they use tools!

Carolee Caffrey of Oklahoma State University observed an American crow modifying and using a piece of wood as a probe.

She says in her paper, “I saw the lone unmarked individual walk along a wooden fence railing to the end post. With its bill, it attempted to probe the interior of the hole supporting the railing, but the space was too small for the bird to penetrate very far. The crow then pecked at the wood surrounding the hole and loosened a section at the top, which it pulled until a triangular piece broke off. It took the piece of wood and placed it under its feet, with the wide end closest to its body, and hammered several times at the tapered end. It then picked up the piece of wood by the wide end and probed the hole with the pointed end for approximately 20 seconds.”

She says she went and looked at the piece of wood after the crow left and noticed that it didn’t fit into the gap the crow took it from; the tapered end had been narrowed.

She also noted a spider web inside the hole but no sign of a spider.

Next time you hear the distinctive caw of a crow or witness its intelligent antics, take a moment to appreciate the mystery and beauty these birds bring to our lives.

And remember that the journey of discovery is endless, and there is always more to glean.

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