Crows have been patrolling my property and occupying my thoughts this week. The property is their territory. My mind is in awe of them.
The crows have minds of their own.
This current interest in crows may be linked to the change in administration at UND. Mark Kennedy took over formally last week. Tom Clifford was among his predecessors. He served from 1971 to 1992. Clifford was the last strong leader in the president’s office—not the last good man but the last strong leader.
As it happens, he was fascinated by crows.
I saw Clifford often in his retirement. My wife’s office was in the building named for Clifford, and he had an office there, too. Whenever we met, he had a question about crows. The most urgent of these for Clifford and for me, was “How smart are they?”
The answer is “pretty darned smart.”
I have come to appreciate that every morning as I weed my garden. The crows have a nest in the southwest corner of the shelterbelt protecting our place, and they spend most mornings making noise.
But do they make sense?
More and more, the evidence suggests they do.
My latest authority in this regard is Candace Savage, a nature writer who lives in Saskatoon, Sask. She’s written extensively about prairie ecosystems and about crows. Her crow books are “Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies and Jays,” and “Crows/Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World.” Savage presents the evidence for the intelligence of crows. I wish I had found her books while I could still share them with President Clifford. He died in 2009.
Crows have an incredible vocal repertoire. Ornithologists named Chamberlain and Cromwell (G.R. and D.W. respectively) identified and named about two dozen calls in 1971. Consensus now suggests these calls, and other vocalizations including gurgles, gargles and grunts, are combined into something that resembles language.
Yes, ornithologists now think crows talk to each other.
The breakthrough research on this topic actually involved ravens. A man named Bernd Heinrich, an obsessed scientist and a gifted writer, publicized this idea in “Ravens in Winter,” where he argued persuasively that ravens tell each other where food can be found and how to reach it.
His research involved lugging roadkill, mostly moose carcasses, into the Maine forests, then waiting in the cold while ravens found and dined on it.
Then he moved it.
His findings have been extended to crows.
The intelligence of crows doesn’t end with an ability to find food and spread the word about its location. Some species of crows have been observed making and using tools. Essentially, they sharpen sticks in order to extract beetles from places they can’t reach with their bills.
Crows are known to reason, too. And they’re not immune from tricking each other. They find food hidden from them and remember where it is. Occasionally, one crow will switch the vessels, steal the food and leave his fellow with an empty stomach.
Crows have been observed dropping shells on intersections, allowing cars to crush them and swooping in for dinner when the light turns red and traffic stops.
Savage reports a crow resident in Toronto who collected shiny things. These included shells, but his prize possession was the handle that had broken from a porcelain cup. The bird cached his treasure, returned to examine it and showed off the cup handle.
Crows remember, too. They’ll harass passersby who have offended them, for example. One bird lover who got on the wrong side of a crow changed his clothes and abandoned his binoculars.
The crow spotted and scolded him.
He loaned his binoculars and jacket to a friend. The crow wasn’t fooled.
At least two UND profs have told me that crows pursue them across campus. Both admit trying to drive crows away from their backyards.
Serves them right, the crows seem to think.
For the most part, I am on good terms with the crows who believe my property is rightfully theirs. They’re right, I figure.
Besides, the crows provide company while I’m working outside.
From Savage’s book, I learned the noises I hear coming from the crows’ nest may be adults that are teaching nestlings crow language and nestlings practicing their repertoire. The experts in the American Ornithologists’ Union’s monograph on crows declare these vocalizations “lack structure in terms of duration, frequency range and organization into repetitive sequences.”
It’s a kind of a jumble, in other words, but not an unpleasant one.
It doesn’t make sense to me, of course, but increasingly the evidence suggests it’s clear enough to the crows.
Clifford would be pleased to know, I think.