Updated: Apr 28, 2022
When i was a budding filmmaker in 8th grade, my friends and I decided to make a movie called Cawsville, which starred me as a knockoff of Will Sasso’s MadTV Steven Segal impression, and my friend Will Vallee as thousands of Giant Crows. To be specific, he played “14,000 six-foot giant crows.” We dressed him up in a large black coat and taped a paper cone to his face, which was his “beak.” Then, my friend Conor and I beat him up with wiffleball bats for a good hour. This was the best movie we had ever made, and probably the greatest creative work of my life. Little did I know that Will in a crow costume is not nearly as intelligent as real-life crows.
Brother, what do you know about crows?
There are about 40 species of crows. You got the American Crow, the New Caledonian Crow, the rook, the jackdaw, the thick-billed raven from the horn of Africa which is the biggest crow (a male can weigh up to 2.5 lbs), and the reasonably-named Little Crow which is the smallest species of crow but also the name of the Dakota chief who led a band of warriors in the five-week “Dakota Sioux Uprising” that led the execution of 38 Dakota men in 1862. BUT, I digress.
Crows are part of the genus corvus, and they’re usually black, but jays are also part of the corvid family, and they’re colorful. So there’s that.
Crows are found around the world and on all of the continents that aren’t bullshit Antarctica.
I will talk about ravens later, because ravens are super famous in cultures around the world. Ravens are larger, have a different call (croak vs caw), and ravens often travel in pairs while crows roll super deep.
Part 1: How smart is a crow?
Humans had always figured that crows were smart, but I guess this wasn’t recognized by SCIENCE until 2002, when some Oxford University students watched a crow named Betty use a tool to grab a piece of pig heart from inside a cage. (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191211-crows-could-be-the-smartest-animal-other-than-primates)
But Betty wasn’t like, the smartest crow ever. She was a standard New Caledonian crow, and they’ve been observed doing dope shit all the time. They recognize individual human faces, sort through sticks to find their favorite sticks which they use as foraging tools, and gesture to communicate.
From the BBC: “Clever primates – including humans – have a particular structure in their brains called the neocortex. It is thought that this helps to make advanced cognition possible. Corvids, notably, do not have this structure. They have instead evolved densely packed clusters of neurons that afford them similar mental prowess.”
If you haven’t seen the video of the crow named 007 solving the 8-step puzzle to get a piece of meat, then you gotta watch it! It’s the best.
There is a person named Dakota McCoy at Harvard who studies crows, and she sees them doing all kinds of awesome stuff. Crows do things for fun, like steal lab equipment and fly off with it. Apparently young crows are the most playful, and then as they age, crow life becomes weighty and the joys of being a crow take a backseat to crow responsibility, like solving artificial puzzles created by humans to test their intelligence.
This article from Smithsonian Magazine discusses a couple of crows teaming up to use a water fountain. One pushes the button while the other drinks. They see a problem, assess it, and find a solution. They have the ability to think at a level, akin to other great apes (for some reason we are scared to say that they’re as intelligent as humans, but COME ON. you try to solve the meat puzzle. I dare you).
Crows have their own language. We don’t understand it, but the rhythm, duration, and intensity of CAWS communicates information to other crows.
The analogy study (this is dope): “Ed Wasserman and his Moscow-based team trained crows to match items that were the same as each other (same color, same shape, or same number). Next, the birds were tested to see if they could match objects that had the same relationship to each other. For example, a circle and a square would be analogous to red and green rather than to two oranges. The crows grasped the concept the first time, without any training in the concepts of "same and different."
Their intelligence is analytical–it is creative. They work in groups. They GET STUFF.
Here’s an annoying thing: so many of these sources say “crows have the same intelligence as a seven year-old child.” LIKE, what does that mean??
Part 2: crows/ravens in culture
So, because crows and ravens eat lots of dead animals, many cultures associate them with death and loss. Since the beginning of civilization, people have seen ravens and considered them a bad omen.
It’s rude. What? Everytime you see a huge black bird picking apart an animal carcass and producing a terrifying croaking sound you think something bad is about to happen?
HOWEVER, their significance to cultures is not as simple as: these things are evil. Consider Poe’s poem, “The Raven.” The titular raven isn’t the villain, it is a reminder of mortality, a voice from the afterlife communicating loss. In Swedish and German folklore, for instance, ravens are the ghosts of people who didn’t receive a proper Christian burial. (i like how that was a decree from Jesus or something. If they don’t have a proper burial, make them ravens)
On this continent, we see Ravens/crows in indigenous folklore (from wiki): “The raven also has a prominent role in the mythologies of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, including the Tsimishians, Haidas, Heiltsuks, Tlingits, Kwakwaka'wakw, Coast Salish, Koyukons, and Inuit. The raven in these indigenous peoples' mythology is the Creator of the world, but it is also considered a trickster God. For instance, in Tlingit culture, there are two different raven characters that can be identified, although they are not always clearly differentiated. One is the creator raven, responsible for bringing the world into being and who is sometimes considered to be the individual who brought light to the darkness. The other is the childish raven, always selfish, sly, conniving, and hungry.”
Ted Hughes’ book of poems, Crow, uses the crow as a symbol for grief following Sylvia Plath’s suicide. Something for the lit kids, ya know?
Part 3: what is animal intelligence, and does it matter?
How do we qualify and quantify animal intelligence? What’s the goddamn point?