Crows: Just How Smart Are They?

Picture a crow. You might envision the bird that digs through your garbage at night. What you may not imagine is that crows are considered to be among the world’s most intelligent animals. They are capable of not only tool use, but also tool construction. Even more impressive is that they are the only non-primate to use meta-tools, or tools meant to obtain other tools. 

A recent study, conducted by the University of Auckland, confirms that crows can use meta-tools. Alex Taylor, a researcher at the University, created an eight-stage puzzle which required a particularly smart crow, 007, to use meta-tools to obtain treats. 007 learned to use individual props beforehand, but had never completed the course in that order. Incredibly, the bird performed the series of tasks in only a few minutes without seeing the course in that order before.

Another study conducted by Dr. Sara Jelbert from the University of Auckland, demonstrates that crows have a reasoning ability rivalling that of a seven-year-old human. The Caledonian Crow, often considered to be the most intelligent crow, was able to distinguish between sinking rather than floating objects, solid rather than hollow objects, high water level tubes over low water level tubes, and water-filled tubes over sand-filled tubes. 

To test the crows’ understanding, Jelbert and her lab designed a series of challenges for the crows to complete. Scientists claimed that the crows’ understanding of the effects of volume displacement rivalled that of human children aged between five and seven.

The crows did fail at some tasks, however. Jelbert says that “in particular, the crows all failed a task which violated normal causal rules, but they could pass the other tasks, which suggests they were using some level of causal understanding when they were successful.”

Still not impressed? Consider a study by researchers in Seattle that showed that crows possess another remarkable skill: the ability to remember human faces. The scientists captured some crows, tagged them, and let them go – all the while wearing masks. When the researchers walked around campus wearing the masks, the crows that were captured dive-bombed them and verbally “scolded” them.

It gets crazier. Before long, crows in the area that weren’t captured began attacking the researchers. Even more interesting is that when researchers walked around campus wearing multiple masks, the crows left them alone. They only targeted the scientists wearing the mask worn during their capture. Essentially what this means is that, if you have ever felt that a crow has a personal vendetta against you, you are probably right.

If you are not convinced by now that crows are seriously underrated, you must be a bird-brain. Observing this degree of cognition in crows, non-primate animals, has made scientists wonder what primates and crows have in common to both develop higher intelligence. Future research will shed light on these questions, providing us further insights into the minds of crows.