By: Christian Young
I was part of a conversation about the Declaration of Independence recently, and (as it always seems to be) one of the key topics of discussion was the catch phrase of the document: “all men are created Equal.” Naturally, everyone was able to agree that this isn’t true from a physical perspective; no matter how hard I train, I’ll never be able to beat Usain Bolt in a race. Our bodies aren’t identical, and everyone agreed that this wasn’t the Declaration’s intended meaning. But then came the natural extension of this thought process: what about intelligence? On one hand, since our brains are a physical part of our bodies, is everyone unequal in intelligence as well? Or does the presence of different modalities of intelligence mean that it all “balances out” on a neurologic scale?
Well, I’m no brain surgeon, so I’m most definitely not going to take a definitive stance here and now. I want you to actually like this piece, after all. No, instead we’re going to talk about corvids, and how frighteningly intelligent they are.
In case anyone confused ‘corvids’ with the scientific designation of the virus that created a global pandemic in the early months of 2020, I can safely assure you that they are two different things. Corvids are a family of hyper-intelligent birds that include (among other species) crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, and nutcrackers, and all of these birds share a key trait: proportional to other species, their brains are abnormally large. In other words, they’re smart. Wicked smart. Neuroscientists and psychologists have actually estimated that corvids operate on the same intelligence level as a seven-year-old human child—for comparison, your standard dog is about as smart as a two- or three-year old child. At first, that might not seem like much: seven year olds aren’t scary at all, at least not as much as adult humans can be. But what I learned last week will make you think twice whenever you walk past a murder of crows. We’re talking Hitchcock-esque levels of scary here. Brace yourself.
One of the key demonstrators of the intelligence of corvids is their ability to use tools to solve problems. I read about two prominent examples of this: in one case, corvids were observed dropping hard-to-crack nuts on the road to let cars run over them and crack the open, revealing that they have a basic understanding of mass or weight (a heavy thing can crack a nut easier than a lightweight thing). In the other case, researchers tested a classic Aesopian fable about a crow that dropped pebbles into a pitcher of water to raise the water level, allowing it to eat food that was floating on the surface; when presented with this exact same scenario, the crows behaved exactly as they had in the fable. Whether or not Aesop was observing a crow when he came up with the fable is unknown; but the fact remains that they can understand buoyancy, water displacement and, once again, mass (the birds chose heavier rocks because they would raise the water level more). It’s also been said that corvids understand analogies, but I have no idea what kind of experiment proved this, so I’m going to relegate it to a single sentence at the end of this paragraph.
Ready for a slightly more scary corvid fact? They have the ability to recognize faces, and apparently understand that human beings are individuals that each need to be approached in their own unique way. If one person harms or offends a corvid, the bird will recognize that person and ‘scold’ them in the future. If you befriend a corvid, on the other hand, they’re liable to take a page out of the housecat’s playbook and bring you little “gifts.”
So what? Even if you hurt a corvid, that doesn’t mean the entire flock will attack you on sight a la Hitchcock’s The Birds; actually, wait, never mind, that can happen. See, another point in the ‘intelligence of corvids’ category comes from their ability to communicate and share information with each other…and yes, that information includes which humans to avoid, befriend, or attack. Scientists conducted an experiment (man, they’re pretty busy, aren’t they) where people in unique-looking masks captured corvids from a certain part of Seattle, tagged them, and released them. A month later, using the tags to track the birds’ movements, they sent out teams of people wearing the masks to different areas of the city, and noticed how the birds targeted the individuals in the masks for “scolding,” that is, stalking and cawing aggressively. The kicker? None of the scolding birds were tagged, meaning the tagged corvids shared the information about what the masks looked like, from which the un-tagged birds were able to recognize the masks. Nervous yet?
Don’t worry, though…most of the things you read in fiction about creepy corvids are just that: fiction. Like Poe’s The Raven, which sees a haunting raven perch quoth-ing(?) “nevermore” at Poe. That’s one hundred percent fiction, except for the part about the raven talking. That’s one hundred percent true. Corvids, like parrots and macaws, are able to mimic human speech patterns. And wouldn’t you know it, but ravens are one of the prominent species of corvids. This doesn’t mean they understand human speech, per se…but it does mean a raven could land on your windowsill, say “nevermore,” and then (when you shoo him away) go tell his buddies that you’re a jerk.
In all honesty, the reason I’m writing this is not to scare you; not even remotely. I just think that it’s so easy to get caught up in moot debates that we miss the glory of God’s creation; look at this, people! God created an entire family of birds that are so smart they appear in classic literature countless times, back when people still thought “bird-brain” was an insult (well, it kinda still is, but birds in general are pretty smart compared to other mammals). If anything, I really want you, the reader, to take a minute after this piece to stop and think of everything we could achieve if we could communicate with corvids…spies, couriers, messengers that would never be suspected. What if we were able to make a computer that responded to caws? What would a seven-year-old use it for? (That might not be that impressive, my dad let me play on his iPhone when I was seven and all I did was play a game called “Blocks Classic.” Still, how cool would it be to see a crow playing a video game?)
And with that, I’ll leave you to your thoughts. Next time you see a crow…think twice before throwing a rock at it (you’re not that kind of person, I know, it’s just a phrase).