Crows are smart — scary smart

Published 8:07 pm Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Crows actually can count — up to six. They’re that smart.

Actually, they’re scary smart. They have the same brain-to-body ratio as primates and have tested smarter than bonobos in some experiments. Crows (and ravens and rooks and jackdaws — there are 45 species of corvids) are truly amazing.

First, the facts: the average crow is 16-18 inches in length, with a wingspan of 39 inches. They average a lifespan of seven years, though the oldest ever tracked in the wild was 29.5 years, and one lived in captivity to the age of 59. They mate for life (unless their union is barren or one dies — then they find someone else).

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What makes them truly fascinating is their striking behavior:

  • Crows mourn their dead — gathering noisily around the corpse with sticks (as offerings?).
  • Ravens can be taught to speak, right, Mr. Poe? Crows can, too.
  • Crows have emotions — happiness/anger/sadness — and express them.
  • Crows can communicate — the location of a carcass, for example.
  • Crows don’t like being looked at directly.
  • Crows hide food and can remember its location six months later.
  • Crows sunbathe with wings and feathers spread to get Vitamin D.
  • Crows will sit near an anthill and allow ants to walk on them for their formic acid, which discourages parasites.
  • Crows roost in huge groups — hundreds of thousands.

A couple of detailed examples of how crows make and use tools: a crow wanting some food in a deep cylinder used a metal wire hook to reach in and pull it up. A crow in a nearby cage was given a straight piece of wire – which he bent into a hook and retrieved his prize. The time in both cases: 30 seconds!

Crows place nuts in intersections for cars to crack, and then eat their prize. Crows with food floating halfway up a water-filled glass dropped pebbles in to raise the water level and claim their prize. Crows pull up some food on a string, step on the string, pull again and step again, pull a third time and claim their prize.

But that’s minor. Consider a Seattle experiment. Several men in masks — let’s say Reagan masks — captured and banded 7 crows. Several others in masks — let’s say Nixon masks — ignored the same family of crows. The banded crows were released.

For the next few weeks, anyone in the area with a Reagan mask was “mobbed” — dive bombed and scolded by the crows. What’s more, the crows communicated the “bad mask” info to offspring and friends, so many un-banded crows joined in the mob. Two years later, the experimenters wore the Reagan masks again and were still dive bombed.

That’s spooky stuff. They can recognize one face in a thousand. And remember it! No wonder crows, ravens, jackdaws and their family members are symbolic birds in dozens of cultures around the world.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at