The Intelligence of Crows and Magpies

Something made me look outside my office window… An intensity of energy? An unusual movement caught my eye. Loki the fox was crouched in his enclosure looking very excited and very predatory. Above him a panicked bird was flying circles, panting, terrified of stopping for a moment. I rushed out. At any moment Loki could leap and vitality would become a pile of lifeless black and white feathers. The moment I opened the door to Loki’s enclosure a crack the magpie shot out, directly over my head, faster than I could believe. He had seen the possibility of freedom and made an instantaneous calculation that the fox was a greater danger than the human. End result: Well-entertained fox; safe and wiser bird.

Looking out the window over my computer, I almost always see one or more of the handsome black and white birds flitting, hopping, perching or observing. I see them every day. All over the property they are squawking, stealing, plotting, complaining, playing, inventing, and generally declaring their presence and vivid life-force. But because I see them every day, I fall prey to that common human quality of taking them for granted, barely noticing them. If I even give them that much recognition. As I walk to my writing cabin absorbed in human thoughts, I am ignoring their busy lives as they flit all around me going about their magpie business. How could this happen? It is a function of the human brain to adjust and accept and then not really see any more. When we are children everything is full of wonder, but there is no reason we can’t keep that alive. We just have to work at it a bit. Familiar, does not mean ordinary. And I forgot that.

I “knew” that the crows and magpies we see all around us are smart, but that’s as far as my awareness went. I had to go to halfway around the world to India to get a new appreciation for them—specifically to an international conference on animals held in New Delhi this past month. One of the presentations was on the intelligence of the corvid family, which includes crows and magpies. Dr. Auguste von Bayern, a researcher with impeccable credentials from top animal behavior institutes, flew in just for a day, driven by her discoveries to help change the perceptions of these maligned birds.

She presented evidence showing that their brain size in relation to body mass is equal to that of great apes and dolphins, and only slightly lower than humans. And that it is not just their brain size, but cognitive abilities as well, that are on par with those of the great apes. In fact they are considered by some researchers to be among the most intelligent of all animals.

How can that be? Aren’t mammals the most highly evolved, most intelligent creatures on the planet? We used to say “birdbrain” because we measured the brains of birds using ours as reference point. But our human-oriented perspective led us astray. The sharp in­tel­ligence of corvids arises despite the fact that their brains are built in a way that is fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from those of mammals. Corvids use a portion of their brain that has no direct counterpart to humans, parts that we discounted because they didn’t fit the location of intelligence in the human brain. Apparently acute intelligences have evolved more then once, in different ways.

Thinking Birds

Raven | BGSmith

Evidence of the intelligence of crows, magpies and other members of the corvid family are plentiful. Corvids have been recorded to recall their food’s hiding place up to nine months later. The Clark’s nutcracker, a type of North American crow, collects up to 30,000 pine seeds over three weeks in November, then carefully buries them for safekeeping over an area of 200 square miles. Over the next eight months, it succeeds in retrieving over 90 percent of them, even when they are covered in feet of snow. Brain power.

Urban-living crows have learned to use road traffic for cracking tough nuts. On a university campus in Japan, crows and humans line up patiently, waiting for the traffic to halt. When the lights change, the birds hop in front of the cars and place walnuts, which they picked from the adjoining trees, on the road. After the lights turn green again, the birds fly away and vehicles drive over the nuts, cracking them open. The birds wait patiently with human pedestrians for a red light before retrieving their prize. If the cars miss the nuts, the birds sometimes hop back and put them somewhere else on the road. Or they sit on electricity wires and drop them in front of vehicles. (From the BBC series “The Life of Birds”.) Crows have shown remarkable innovative tool-making abilities even beyond those of chimpanzees.

Members of the corvid family have been known to watch other birds, observe where the other birds hide their food, and steal it once the owner leaves. They also move their food around between hiding places to avoid thievery, but only if they have previously been thieves themselves. Cache robbing is common. Knowing the character of their compatriots (through their own mischievous efforts), a magpie often makes several false caches before making a real one. They use their own experience of having been a thief to predict the behavior of a pilferer, and can determine the safest course to protect their caches from being pilfered.

What the above examples show is that these birds are thinking. That is one of the things that’s so interesting. They demonstrate many of the intellectual abilities we associate with human thinking but without language This suggests that many of our intellectual abilities which we assumed we need language for, we don’t. That opens a window into understanding our own thinking in a different way.

Social Birds

Magpie and Crow | Eric Isselee

Corvids are also intensely social birds with a strong sense of community. They send out sentinels so the others can eat without worrying about predators. They provide mutual aid. A group of crows in England took turns lifting garbage bin lids while their companions collected food, showing a capacity for teamwork. The bond between the male and female is extremely strong and often lifelong. They build nests together, and the male will feed the female as she sits patiently on her precious eggs. Both parents look after the chicks. Young corvids play elaborate social games similar to “king of the mountain” and “follow the leader;” they manipulate, pass, and balance sticks, and show what certainly looks like joy as they slide down smooth surfaces, climb or fly back up, and do it again. And again. They have a sense of self, recognizing themselves in a mirror. They have been reported to recognize each other as individuals; call one another by “name.” The black-billed magpie, the ones outside my window, have been seen to hold a “funeral.” When one magpie discovers a dead one, it begins calling loudly to attract other magpies. The gathering of loudly calling magpies (up to 40 birds have been observed) may last for 10 to 15 minutes before the birds fly off silently.

I see these raucous, chattering, vibrant, brassy birds very differently now, these direct descendants of dinosaurs. As a result my world is richer and more colorful. Not only are they definitely extroverted, opinionated beings, but once you tune in you sense an awareness, an alertness, an intelligence. It reminds me that we are surrounded by the many intelligences of other beings. That gives a wonderful sense of companionship.

Raven | Michal Pesata

You would think, living with bears and wolves and many other animals, that the appreciation I developed would carry over to all species. But in my busyness running an organization, which involves human-centered and human-created necessities such as fundraising, insurance, and staffing, I got lost in my own head. I just pretty much ignored magpies and the great vitality they add to the land. It is a constant learning to be ever more open to what is around us and not get lost in our own busyness. It so impoverishes us. I wonder how we can help each other enter into, or stay, in the mode of broader awareness. I will work on that but would welcome your thoughts. Maybe I will try to concentrate for one week on each life form around me – birds, mammals, trees, plants. That promises a lifetime of learning, increasing awareness and companionship.

PS – About that magpie who almost got caught… how come, if they are so smart? They are birds of great appetites as well as great intelligence, and I suspect greed got the better of him. Apparently it is possible to be greedy as well as intelligent…

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