"Gifts of the Crow," a new book by University of Washington wildlife biologist John Marzluff and Seattle artist Tony Angell, recounts amazing feats of perception, memory and problem-solving performed by common crows.
Lit life |
John Marzluff and Tony Angell have devoted much of their lives to studying corvids, the family to which the crow and the raven belong. After reading their latest book about these amazing birds, the question in this reader’s mind has become — not what can a crow do, but what can’t a crow do?
Artist Angell and biologist Marzluff have collaborated on a “Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans” (Free Press, $25). “Gifts” is the follow-up to their beautiful and successful 2005 book “In the Company of Crows and Ravens.”
Like that book, “Gifts” features Angell’s skill as a wildlife artist and naturalist and Marzluff’s scientific background (he’s a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington) to illustrate the life and times of these ubiquitous yet endlessly fascinating creatures.
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“Gifts” was inspired by hundreds of reports the two received after their first book came out. Observations and questions flooded in. And some fantastic stories.
• Crows and ravens work together. A pair of ravens at the North Cascades Institute learned to “herd” crossbills down a passageway between buildings. “Elvis, a male raven would … rush the crossbills down a corridor between buildings, and his mate would intercept their progress and turn them into the glass windows. Stunned crossbills littered the ground afterward until Elvis and his mate grabbed mouthfuls to eat and cache for later dinners, ” the authors write.
• Crows can tell time — if not by a watch, by other prompts. The authors write of a dozen wild crows at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo who followed a feeding ritual. Once a week (noon Friday), Humboldt penguins got a treat — live fish. The crows learned to mass well ahead of time; they knew the routine and “beat the keepers to their posts by a few minutes” picking off the penguins’ treats.
• Crows have emotions, such as anger and attachment. They have been known to pay their respects to the dead, visiting a fallen comrade — whether to mourn, identify their fellow flock member or evaluate the new pecking order in the flock is impossible to say.
• Crows and other corvids have phenomenal memories: Nutcrackers and jays can remember for months tens of thousands of locations where they cache seeds each year, enabling them to “thrive in nature’s boom-and-bust seed economy,” the authors write.
• They like to have fun: for instance, tweaking the tails of dogs and cats. Pulling the feathers from the tail of a clueless turkey. Just like humans, these activities generate endorphins, hormones that generate feelings of warmth and contentment that flow into the birds’ brains when they goof around.
• And they bring gifts. A Port Townsend woman who regularly fed crows received “half of a red poker chip, a penny, a paper clip, a red die, bits of pottery, a blue glass beard, a red wire twist tie, a tiny pin that says Loyal Legion Week 1933, and the … best thing of all — a blue plastic Cap’n Crunch figurine.”
Humans have recognized crow smarts since the days of Aesop. Remember the thirsty crow in the fable “The Crow and the Pitcher”? The wily bird plunked pebbles in a jar, raising the water level high enough for the bird to drink.
But the study of corvids has been aided by technology, informational and otherwise. Innovations in brain research over the last 20 years have enabled scientists to “watch” crows and ravens think.
Scientists studying seed-saving nutcrackers and jays could chart measurable growth in the hippocampus, the part of the birds’ brains that store memories.
Scans enable researchers to watch brain activity when stimulated; the sight of a dead crow lights up other crows’ amygdala, the part of the brain linked to emotion.
Perhaps the most amazing story in “Gifts of the Crow” concerns a group of New Caledonian crows.
A study published in 2010 documented how these birds solved a food-fetching problem by using a three-stage strategy: “pulling up a string that held a short stick tool, then using the short tool to get a longer stick tool, and finally using the longer stick to push food out of a hole in a box.”
It didn’t matter whether these crows had previous experience with the tools; they all solved the problem with little effort.
This behavior can only be called “insight — the ability to see far enough into a situation to fully grasp the problem and the solution,” the authors write.
It’s an understanding that goes well beyond simple imitation or a behavioral response to a stimulus.
Angell says the work of the two has been aided by a culture shift. Humans are now more receptive to the idea that animals might have their own thinking strategies.
“There’s an atmosphere in the culture now that’s more open to investigating other species,” he says.
That shift, and a flood of new information, means that the phrase “bird brain” applies to these birds — to quote one famous raven — “Nevermore.”
shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.