BOOKS: Bird Brains: the intelligence of crows, ravens, magpies, and jays

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1997:

Bird Brains: the intelligence of crows, ravens, magpies, and jays by Candace Savage
Sierra Club Books (85 2nd St., San Francisco, CA 94105), 1997. 114 pages, paperback, $18.00.

“The corvids are the top of the line
in avian evolution,” Candace Savage writes,
“among the most recent and successful of
modern birds. From some unknown pinpoint
beginning, they have diversified and expanded
to occupy most of the globe. Whether you go
to the Sahara or the Amazon rain forest,” or
for that matter the Arctic, “you will likely be
met by some kind of crow or crow cousin,”
such as a jay, “who will eye you boldly and
shout if you come too close.”
According to Native American legend,
says Savage, it was a crow cousin,
Raven, who attached visible genitals to male
mammals as a practical joke.


Studies show that cultivated crops
make up less than 1% of the crow family diet,
while they eat more than 4,000 bugs apiece
just during nesting, yet crows and magpies are
still massacred, including by the USDA
Animal Damage Control program, on purported
behalf of farmers. Exercising no more than
the normal role of a predator in keeping prey
species fit, crows, magpies, and especially
jays are as unfairly detested by many birdwatchers,
who equally wrongly accuse them
of depleting songbirds. As opportunists, they
will deplete a bird-feeder, however––much as
Raven and kin follow wolves and coyotes, or
feast upon roadkill, scavenging their meals as
available. In medieval times, they followed
armies, and certain banners were developed
with crow-scaring in mind, since the presence
of crows overhead reputedly signalled not only
the location of advancing troops, but also their
numbers and extent of vulnerability to an
armored cavalry charge. After guns made
armor obsolete, crows supposedly learned to
anticipate who would be shot.
Savage doesn’t delve deeply into the
history of crows “winning” human warfare,
but does present virtually everything known
about corvid behavior, including their use of
language. Most corvids, it seems, not only
have an extensive vocabulary used with one
another and universally understood, despite
discernable regional accents, but also imitate
the distinctive sounds of other species––sometimes
to tease owls, cats, dogs, and gullible
humans, but sometimes too in serious
attempts to communicate. Some actively solict
the help of other species to get food.
Contrary to reputation, moreover,
“Crows are known for their acts of kindness to
injured and ailing members of their species,”
Savage writes. “In one well-documented case,
a mated male northwestern crow regularly
brought food to an unmated female who was
handicapped by deformities and partial blindiness.
This association lasted for at least two
breeding seasons, even though the male was
simultaneously pressed to feed young chicks in
the nest [with his mate].”
Similar altruism is common among
foxes, wolves, and coyotes, with whom
corvids often keep company.
Then there is math. Corvids can
count at least to six, and make quite complex
judgements about size, weight, timing and
distance––for instance, judging the variable
heights from which seashells must be dropped
on rocks to get at the mollusks inside. To fly
too low with a shell is to fail and perhaps lose
it. To fly too high is to waste energy and risk
theft by another bird.
What Savage offers about corvids is
remarkable enough, including extraordinary
photos of young crows demonstrating their
courage by baiting a bald eagle. The sauciest
corvid, if he lives to crow about it, enjoys the
greatest status within the flock.
But the evolutionary implications of
the intelligence of corvids, and other birds,
should give humans real humility. Even the
dullest birds seem about as intelligent as all
but the most intelligent mammals, while a
case can be made that humans are the only
mammals who can credibly claim to be more
intelligent than the most intelligent birds––and
that may not be by much of a margin, since by
most standards, crows, parrots, and pigeons
are as intellectually capable as chimpanzees.
Whales and dolphins, with their
huge brains, don’t even rate. A sperm whale
has by far the biggest brain we know of, yet
among fellow mammals even a matchbooksized
bat has similar ability at echolocation
and responding to atmospheric pressure,
the two functions at which sperm
whales are known to excell. And no one
argues that bats are great intellects, or
even the peers of most birds. The real
meaning of the whale/bat contrast is simply
that whales evolved in an environment
in which size is a great advantage,
so had little evolutionary incentive to
develop mental efficiency. Bats have
apparently evolved for much longer, perhaps
as long as birds, in a habitat
niche––flight–– which favors hyperefficient
use of weight. Bats thus evolved an
advanced micro-miniaturized on-board
computer, while sperm whales chug
around with Univac and humans require
external help from radar and sonar to do
anything comparable to the routine feats
of either.
Birds, meanwhile, have evolved a
far more diverse intelligence than bats, with
the same stress on efficiency.
But maybe birds weren’t even the
brightest branch of their own family tree.
Suppose another cataclysm hit the earth as a
comet did 65 million years ago, again killing
every creature bigger than a housecat. Would
the brightest primates survive, or the brightest
of any mammal family? Intelligent birds may
have evolved from one of the duller branches
of D i n o s a u r i a, and if some of the dinosaurs
with opposable digits instead of wings had
continued evolving––for 16 times as long as it
took us to reach the chimp level––they’d now
be far ahead of us.
We’re here, and they’re not,
because of our lucky stars.

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