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Blog: Are you smarter than a crow?

Mel Barber
717-505-5443/@ydfood

Exciting research is going on right now at the University of Washington, where the intricacies of a crow's mind — more complex than you might guess — are being mapped with PET scans.

American crows are under investigation for being even smarter than they appear.

Kat McGowan at Audubon.org has a fascinating in-depth article on the scientists and their flock of feathered test subjects.

The crow is waking up to a ring of people staring at him — quite likely the strangest experience of his life. But he does not struggle or squawk. He is still, and his black eyes are bright, watching us watching him. Watching. 

— Kat McGowan, Audubon.org

Basically, it works like this: The test-subject crow listens to a recording of other crows making noise. The PET scan shows which areas of the crow's brain got super-excited about the sounds. The crow's brain scan is compared to scans from other test-subject crows. Eventually, researchers can map out whether the crow is excited about food (from that nice fellow who puts breadcrumbs out daily) or nervous about predators (those mean rock-throwing kids down at the park). In essence, we learn to speak crow.

By testing how the birds remember, communicate, and learn, [the] team is gaining insights into why crows are so street-smart and how they manage to thrive in our world.

— Kat McGowan, Audubon.org

Cool, right? The research has been in progress for years, and it turns out that crows can do things we normally think of as the province of humans and other primates. One bad experience with a human, and the affected crows will carry that face in memory for years and react accordingly — and teach crows who weren't even present during the bad experience to beware that human, too.

Meet the Bird Brainiacs: American Crow

Corvids are great puzzle-solvers, too. Here's a video of ravens figuring out how to bring tasty meat scraps to their hungry beaks using displacement of water:

And here's a crow solving an eight-stage puzzle using tools. It's not as easy as "complete action A, earn reward." No no no. That's too simple for this smart fellow:

But it's not all work and no play for these birdbrains. Sometimes, you just want to cut loose and take your bottle-cap sled for a run down a roof.

If you have children young enough to enjoy picture books and read-alouds (or even if you don't), I highly recommend Lois Lowry's book "Crow Call." What starts as an outing to shoot the crows snagging their meals from farmers' crops turns into a beautiful connection between a father and daughter in which the sharp crack of the rifle never sounds. You can even borrow a copy from the York County Library System.