On Magpies & Crows

Our Animal Friends

Our Animal Friends


The Stunning Intelligence of Crows and Magpies

Reprinted with permission by earthfireinstitute.org


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


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


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.

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…

from:    http://spiritofmaat.com/magazine/august-2015-rediscovering-passion-and-desire/our-animal-friends/

The Language of Ravens

Ravens Use ‘Hand’ Gestures to Communicate

Charles Choi, LiveScience Contributor
Date: 29 November 2011 Time: 11:11 AM ET
male raven gestures with its beak to two other ravens
The researchers found that ravens often use their beaks like hands to make gestures, such as this male raven is doing as the bird shows two of its kin an object in its beak.
CREDIT: Thomas Bugnyar

Ravens use their beaks and wings much like humans rely on our hands to make gestures, such as for pointing to an object, scientists now find.

This is the first time researchers have seen gestures used in this way in the wild by animals other than primates.

From the age of 9 to 12 months, human infants often use gestures to direct the attention of adults to objects, or to hold up items so that others can take them. These gestures, produced before children speak their first words, are seen as milestones in thedevelopment of human speech.

Dogs and other animals are known to point out items using gestures, but humans trained these animals, and scientists had suggested the natural development of these gestures was normally confined only to primates, said researcher Simone Pika, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. Even then, comparable gestures are rarely seen in the wild in our closest living relatives, the great apes — for instance, chimpanzees in the Kibale National Park in Uganda employ so-called directed scratches to indicate distinct spots on their bodies they want groomed.

Still, ravens and their relatives such as crows and magpies have been found to be remarkably intelligent over the years, surpassing most other birds in terms of smarts and even rivaling great apes on some tests.

“[What] I noticed when I encountered ravens for the first time is that they are, contrary to my main focus of research, chimpanzees, a very object-oriented species,” Pika said. “It reminded me of my childhood, when my twin brother and I were still little and one of us suddenly regained a favorite toy, which existence both of us had forgotten for a little while. This toy suddenly became the center of interest, fun and competition. Similar things happen, when ravens play with each other and regain objects.”

Beak gestures

To see if ravens communicated using gestures, scientists investigated wild ravens in Cumberland Wildpark in Grünau, Austria. Each bird was individually tagged to help identify them.

A male raven approaches two other ravens showing an object in its beak.
A male raven approaches two other ravens showing an object in its beak.
CREDIT: Thomas Bugnyar

The researchers saw the ravens use their beaks much like hands to show and offer items such as moss, stones and twigs. These gestures were mostly aimed at members of the opposite sex and often led those gestured at to look at the objects. The ravens then interacted with each other — for example, by touching or clasping their bills together, or by manipulating the item together. As such, these gestures might be used to gauge the interest of a potential partner or strengthen an already existing bond.

“Most exciting is how a species, which does not represent the prototype of a ‘gesturer’ because it has wings instead of hands, a strong beak and can fly, makes use of very sophisticated nonvocal signals,” Pika told LiveScience.

Origin of gestures

Ravens are known to possess a relatively high degree of cooperation between partners. These findings suggest that gestures evolved in a species that demonstrates a high degree of collaborative abilities, a discovery that might shed light on the origin of gestureswithin humans.

“Gesture studies have too long focused on communicative skills of primates only,” Pika said. “The mystery of the origins of human language, however, can only be solved if we look at the bigger picture and also consider the complexity of the communication systems of other animal groups.”

As to whether or not these findings suggest that ravens are smarter than dogs, “I am not an advocate of proposing that a given species is smarter than another one,” Pika said. “In my view, all species have adapted to distinct social and ecological settings and niches, and thus, a given species might behave in a distinct situation ‘smarter’ than another one in the same situation and vice versa. In my opinion, it is much more interesting to investigate why one species can solve a given task better than another one and how and why this behavior evolved.”

Pika and her colleagues would like to further explore what other gestures ravens use and what their meaning and function might be. Pika and Thomas Bugnyar detailed their findings online Nov. 29 in the journal Nature Communications

from:    http://www.livescience.com/17213-ravens-gestures-animal-communication.html