Call me a bird brain—Please!

By Chloe

July 12th, 2019

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s night falls over Bothell, a quiet suburb northeast of Seattle, thousands of crows fill the sky.  They swoop down to roost in a restored wetland located on the University of Washington branch campus. Why?—and why there? No one knows. Researchers are still trying to figure it out. The mystery and brain power of these creatures are daunting.

Birds are smart. Really smart. And crows, often dismissed as annoying pests, may be the smartest of them all.

Take the New Caledonian Crow.  They can count.  Solve problems.  Make and use tools.  In The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman tells the story of “007”, a New Caledonian Crow who, as the name suggests, is a superstar of the avian world. 

Five years ago, a lecturer at a New Zealand University devised a puzzle to test 007’s ability to strategize problems and overcome obstacles. The researcher laid out a challenging eight-step puzzle that had to be completed in just the right order to reach a food reward.  The assumption was the bird might make it part of the way, get stumped and repeatedly revise his approach.  Wrong.

Like James Bond, 007 coolly assessed the situation. Presented with boxes and chambers containing sticks and rocks, 007 studied them to determine their potential usefulness.  Then he went to work: he pulls on a string to reach a stick...realizes it’s too short...figures out how to reach a longer one by dropping rocks onto a seesaw...and finally uses the longer one to pry out his dinner. You can watch the video here. He’s completely unruffled, completing the task in one take, in just in two-and-a half minutes.  

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rows aren’t just smart.  They know who their friends are, and unlike some humans, they understand that real friends aren’t just takers, they’re also givers.  How do we know this?  Some years ago, a four-year-old Seattle girl started feeding crows on her way to and from her bus stop.  Later she started putting out peanuts for the crows on a tray in her yard.  Soon presents started showing up on her doorstep.  Buttons…scraps of shiny metal…bolts and screws…an earring.  Similar stories have been reported all over the country.  Crows leave gifts—in one case, a candy heart delivered right after Valentine’s Day.  (How smart are these creatures?) Crows understand friendship is reciprocal.  And they seem to understand that if they leave a gift, they’ll get one back.

Crows also know their enemies and run their own sort of block watch.  Professor John Marzluff of the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences discovered that crows can recognize and remember faces, hold grudges, and warn other crows about humans deemed to be threatening. Marzluff noticed that crows that had been trapped by specific scientists became wary of them, so in the future made themselves much harder to catch.  Marzluff devised a test.  He had some researchers wear scary caveman masks while they captured wild crows.  Nine years later, the masked scientists returned.  The crows went crazy, dive bombing and scolding them.  And not just the crows who’d been captured previously.  Even crows that weren’t yet hatched when the first “crime” happened attacked with gusto. Was this just following the lead...or some type of innate instruction?  Who knows?

In a separate case, a researcher who works with ravens tried to conceal his identity by wearing wigs and sunglasses. He limped to change his gait.  He put on a kimono.  It didn’t work.  He was recognized immediately as an enemy.

And...crows mourn their dead.  The scientific world is still debating this one.  But the evidence seems to indicate these birds are deeply impacted when one of their own dies.  Like humans, they gather and perform rituals to memorialize the passing.   One incident was recounted by the former president of a local Audubon Society who saw a dead crow on the ground.  Twelve others were hopping around the deceased.  One by one, the crows dropped blades of grass and twigs on the corpse... and then flew away.  Are those birds feeling loss?  Sharing information that might be key to their survival?  Who knows?


ll my life I underestimated birds.  I envied them, because who wouldn’t like to fly?  But mostly I considered them inferior creatures who sang pretty songs or cawed annoyingly, ate insects and worms and built cool looking nests.  But as I began watching and studying them, I realized they deserve my admiration and respect. Birds are remarkably intelligent, resourceful, and capable of extraordinary physical and mental feats.  And I feel connected to them in ways I never expected.  I find them delightful and endlessly fascinating.  So, yes, call me a bird brain, please.  It’s the ultimate compliment.

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