A few years ago something extraordinary occurred near our house that forever changed the way I look at crows.
One day, a crow whose leg got wrapped in a piece of string or fishing line became entangled high atop a large, unclimbable oak tree.
The poor thing didn’t survive long, and not long after our street witnessed something right out of the Twilight Zone.
Crows began to appear in the sky in large numbers, coming from all directions, cawing and squawking loudly. At least 100 birds, maybe more, settled in and around the tree.
The phenomenon, I would later learn, is known as a crow funeral, and it has been observed many times in many places.
The “mourners” sat silently near the deceased, as if paying their last respects, and after a few minutes took flight and dispersed.
The weirdness of this event got me interested in the latest research, which has revealed that crows and their relatives – ravens, magpies and jays – possess an almost scary level of intelligence.
Crows have brain-to-body ratios similar to chimpanzees and dolphins, and score as high as primates in some intelligence tests.
They fashion and use tools. Captive birds have solved complex puzzles to get food, and will bend wire into a hook to lift something they want.
In Japan, crows place walnuts in front of cars stopped at intersections, wait for the cars to crack the nuts and then swoop in safely for the nutmeat.
They recognize individual human faces. At the University of Washington, researchers who wore rubber masks to trap and band crows were scolded and harassed by the birds whenever they wore the masks around campus. Younger crows were taught to recognize these threatening humans by both parents and others in the flock.
In other words, those birds in the backyard are smarter than the dogs and cats in our homes.
“When it comes to logical and deductive reasoning, the crow is by far one of the smartest species that’s out there,” animal behaviourist Josh Klein recently told the Discovery Channel.
Crows are great mimics, and can “speak” human words. I have heard one crow in my neighbourhood imitate a woodpecker drilling on a tree, and another imitate a barking dog.
Researchers have identified more than 250 unique language calls, and crow populations have regional dialects.
People tend to hate crows, but they possess many qualities admired by humans.
They mate for life. They build nests together. Both parents look after the chicks. They live in large, extended families, whenever possible, and they welcome back young members of the family even after they’ve been away for years.
Crows are the Einsteins of the bird world, and I’ve come to respect them. Indeed, watching the way they “talk” to each other has made my own world a richer and more interesting one.