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Commentary by Mari Carbajal
| Thursday, Dec 11, 2014

maricarbajalThe American crow and common raven are omnivorous members of the family Corvidae (genus Corvus). Besides ravens and crows, this family also includes rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs and nutcrackers. There are 30 different species of crows and approximately nine species of ravens, along with numerous sub-species worldwide, with exception of the tip of South America and at the polar ice caps. All corvids are passerine (perching) species.

Corvids (meaning crow family) that will be discussed here are the American crow and the common raven found in and around the Santa Clarita Valley. However, there are some “interesting facts” included that give light to all corvids world-wide.

Corvids are considered extremely intelligent. They have demonstrated tool making, long-term memory, and communication skills within their groups. The brain to body-mass ratio of these two birds is equal to great apes and is only slightly lower than that of humans. Tests have been conducted on both ravens and crows to determine their intelligence.

RavenAlthough they look very much alike, there are vast differences between the two corvid species, both in appearance and behavior.

The raven’s beak is designed to tear apart its prey. The crow’s beak is not. A crow must wait for something to tear open a find, which is why you see them so often around trash bins. The main differences between the two (although there are many more than what is listed) are: crows are smaller than ravens; ravens are a little darker with a hint of blue; and the easiest way to tell them apart is by observing their tail. A raven’s tail is like a fan, where a crow’s is flattened at the end.

Over several million years ago, the Bering Land Bridge (Bering Strait) was a land connection over which these birds migrated. This was often possible due to periods where the sea levels would drop. Old and New World ravens isolated and diverged approximately 2 million years ago. In the Pleistocene Age (2 million to 15,000 years ago), Old World jays, nutcrackers, magpies, crows and ravens migrated across to North and South America.

BeaksCrows and ravens have been spiritual motivators, cultural drivers (e.g., navigation), objects as interesting scientific subjects, concerns for conservation, and considered pests by many. However, this species helps to deter the pest population in agriculture, and are considered our “cleanup crew” due to their love for road kill and other waste materials left by humans. They play an important role in the influence of human society, and in captivity, after age 2, most crows and ravens have the ability to learn to talk.

 

Intelligence of crows and ravens

Both the crow and the raven are inquisitive birds that are often required to solve the problems they encounter. Experiments have shown that if they need a tool to resolve a problem, they will analyze and figure it out.

Experiment using the American crow: The crow was placed in an enclosure with a long plastic tube containing food. To one side of the cylindrical container, they placed a piece of straight metal wire. The challenge was for the bird to figure out how to get the food out of the tube.

At first, the crow attempted to grab the food by sticking its head into the tube. When that didn’t work, the bird began searching the area and located the straight metal wire. It attempted to stab the food with the straight piece of metal, but it was unable to get the food to the surface within reach of eating. The crow then proceeded to walk around the enclosure, poking the straight wire into various areas of the enclosure until the prong was bent into a hook at one end. Once the hook was formed, the bird was able to snag the food and bring it to the top of the enclosure to consume the food. This experiment can be found on YouTube.

Tails FeathersExperiment using the common raven: This experiment was designed to evaluate insight and problem-solving ability and involved a piece of meat attached to a string hanging from a perch. To reach the food, the bird needed to stand on the perch, pull the string up a little at a time, and step on the loops to gradually shorten the string. Four out of five of the ravens eventually succeeded, and the transition from no success (ignoring the food or merely yanking at the string) to constant reliable access (pulling up the meat) occurred with no demonstrable trial-and-error learning.

This supports the hypothesis that common ravens have the ability to solve problems presented to them. Many of the common raven’s problem-solving skills were formerly thought to be instinctive, but it is becoming clear that common ravens are actually quite intelligent.

It’s been proven that ravens and crows have an extremely enhanced long-term memory. It has been determined that the average crow or raven has a memory retention of approximately 600 days up to 3 years.

Experiment: Seven crows were captured and tagged by a man wearing a rubber monster mask. After the tagging, and periodically for more than 48 months, whoever wore the mask would encounter crows dive-bombing and harassing the person wearing the mask.

A further study was done where the person wearing the mask would also wear a hat. When another person would wear the same hat without the mask, the birds would harass the person, but not to the extent of the harassment of wearing the hat and the mask together. This experiment was continued for over three years, proving that the birds were able to recognize and retain the information that threatened them.

Experiment: Even though the crow has a large tough bill, it’s difficult for a crow to break through skin (such as any road kill) and must wait for something else to open a carcass, or wait for it to decompose before feeding. A group of crows were given several English walnuts. The crows learned to perch near intersections. When the light turned red, the crow would fly down with the walnut in its beak and place it on the street. When the light turned green, the cars would crush the walnut. When the light turned red again, the crow would fly down and get the meat from the crushed shell. It was noted that the other crows learned this behavior by watching, which substantiates their intelligence.

 

Influence of crows and ravens on human society

The most well-known influence would be that of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Raven.” Poe was actually influenced to write the poem by Charles Dickens, who had a crow he taught to talk.

Societies and cultures around the world have been influenced by corvids, and there is evidence as shown in cave paintings. Early hunters and gatherers built scarecrows to keep them away from the fish or other meats while they were hung to dry. Totem poles have been carved with replicas of ravens and crows. It’s been said that Noah depended on the crows to find land. The Japanese and the Hindus sought their wisdom. They appear in Shakespeare’s plays. Many famous artists, including Van Gogh, painted crows and ravens.

Superstitions are often woven from tales of crows and ravens. When Alexander the Great came upon – and ignored – a dying flock of crows at Babylon, he was warned that evil would follow, and within two weeks, he died.

In Irish folklore, good luck would be expected to anyone who saw a raven cawing as it flew to their right. Scottish Highlanders hunting deer considered it good luck if they heard a raven. In some cultures, seeing a dead crow in the road was good luck, but to see one alive pass in front of you was bad luck. In American Indian cultures, the crows and the ravens are revered and respected as sacred spiritual creatures.

The Hän people of Yukon, Canada, mimicked ravens’ calls to attract bears into their hunting areas. And in Greenland, Eskimo hunters associated ravens passing overhead as a sign that caribou were close by.

Crows and ravens were integral to Tibetan funeral rituals. A dead loved one was ceremoniously cut into small pieces and placed on an altar so the birds could carry the pieces to their next life.

Eskimos tied the foot of a raven around their newborn babies’ necks so that as adults, they would be able to endure long periods without food.

During Medieval times, crows and ravens could be seen scavenging on bodies that lie on the battlegrounds. This was considered an omen of bad luck and harbingers of death. During the outbreaks of the Black Death, the medical doctors wore helmets resembling a crow’s head. Perfume was added to the beak to reduce the smell of the rotting corpses. In this time, a flock of ravens was called an “unkindness” while a flock of crows was referred to as a “murder.”

The crowbar was modeled after the sturdy leg of a crow.

The crow’s beak, which is efficient for picking up and holding small objects, inspired the design for a pair of seventeenth-century forceps called a “crow bill” which is used to probe into wounds and extracting things like bullets or other foreign objects.

The term “crow’s feet” goes back to the seventeenth century describing a device consisting of a number of small cords twisted through a long block that keeps a sail from chafing. A “crow’s nest” on a ship was named after the nest of a crow, made from sticks, which somewhat resembles the ship’s platform, and the ability to spot approaching threats.

A derogatory slang term for an unattractive older woman is an “old crow” and when you reach the age where you’re physically challenged, you become “crow bait” or “raven food.” Soldiers used the term “crows’ meat” for doomed soldiers.

The color of the crow and raven’s feathers was used to describe a variety of things. Miners would refer to the color of the ore as “crow” rather than as black coal.

A “crow hop” refers to a horse jumping about with its arched back and stiffened knees as a precursor to bucking.

When someone is trying to back out of an argument, it’s referred to as “crow-hopping.”

“Crowing” was an English term used to describe your stomach growling.

Many other terms are often used, such as “crowing about something,” which refers to bragging, and “as the crow flies” to denote the quickest route of travel between two points.

In criminal language, a “crow” is someone who keeps watch while another steals.

To “eat crow” refers to recanting a situation that you’ve lied about and then were caught. It’s said that this originated at the end of the War of 1812 when a bored American soldier crossed the Niagara River into British territory to hunt. Since he could only find crows, he shot one. A British officer heard the report and faced the intruder, but the soldier claimed he didn’t shoot the bird. As punishment for his lie and trespassing, the officer made the American take a bite of the crow. The American protested, but ate the crow anyway and then was escorted back to the border.

Crows and ravens are among the most ambitious creatures with much to admire. They should be revered as one of nature’s most prized possessions, and not as a derogatory reference in any way, shape or form.

Enjoy nature at its best.

 

Mari Carbajal is a docent-naturalist at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Eliza Howard says:

    Thank you for this great article. I learned many new things. I have great respect for Corvidae. In my opinion they know much more then they let on to humans. I literally can watch them for hours. I only have the pleasure of crows where I live though. I love taking photos of them, they are magnificent.

  2. Jim Crowley says:

    Great article Mari. Thank You! Crows and Ravens do in fact have great memories and use facial recognition. We toss peanuts to them at Central Park in the AM. After they “get to know you” they will actually roost into the trees around your car as you arrive, knowing you are the one about to serve breakfast. Just toss the peanuts man! They know who you are but don’t like it it when you look directly at them….odd.

  3. sue Powell says:

    I understand Crows have a communal nest, I see them leaving my neighborhood around sunset each night and returning in the morning. Do you know where the giant nest is??

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