Monday, January 31, 2011

The Intelligence of Crows

One of the dropjaw moments in the recent Princeton Environmental Film Festival came in a documentary called "A Murder of Crows". Despite the title, no blood was shed, since "murder" in this situation simply refers to a group of crows, like a gaggle of geese or a pride of lions.

Crows have societies not altogether different from our own. They live on every continent except Antarctica; they mate for life, have complex family structures in which the older siblings stick around for several years, helping their parents raise the newborns; they commute to "work" each day and return to a familiar roost at night; they appear to hold funerals for lost ones, speak to one another in complex ways, and use tools.

It's the tool use that was most stunning, as one crow in the film, seeking a bit of food left in a cage by a scientist, figured out that it could retrieve a little stick from the end of a string, use the little stick to retrieve a longer stick from an enclosure, then use the longer stick to fetch out the morsel tucked otherwise out of reach in a cage.

Much of this has been known for longer than the filmmakers let on, but the photography and story of these "apes with feathers" is compelling. In Princeton, there are two kinds of crows that I know of: the American crow and the fish crow. I'm most aware of the fish crow, whose calls of "uh, uh" during the summer seem like an ongoing critique of the human activities below. Ravens, which are bigger and have a deeper voice, can be found in more mountainous terrain, such as at the Delaware Water Gap an hour north of here.

For more info on crows, click here.

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