Thursday, September 29, 2011

Crows: Suspiciously Smart

Crows have been getting a bad wrap lately. They're always depicted as evil scavengers often found pecking fresh eyeballs in crime drama shows. The person that named a group of crows a "murder" doesn't help the stereotype either. However, crows are actually considered one of the world's most intelligent animals in the world. I'm not talking about the cute "walk through a maze" smart either, I'm talking about "make tools to take over mankind" smart.

Just eating a shark. Nothing to see here.

Crows have been shown to be one of the few animals in the world that can use and construct tools. Both domestic and wild crows have shown certain abilities that make them creepily smart. For example, wild hooded crows in Israel have learned to use breadcrumbs for baiting fish in pools. One crow took/found a piece of bread, held it beneath it's feet, tore the bread to little pieces, threw the pieces into a pool and expertly extract nibbling fish under the water. Wait a few more years, and they'll be dangling keys in front of little boys and girls in the playground.

One specific species, the New Caledonian Crow has been known to be the only non-human species to be able to invent new tools by modifying existing ones and passing it down the family. Two birds named Betty and Abel were given a dilemma, they were given two tools to be used for retrieving small pieces of pig's heart, (Their favorite food) a straight wire and a hooked wire. Abel was able to recognize the ingenuity of the hooked wire and made off with it first, leaving Betty with a lame-old straight wire. Instead of giving up like any human toddler would, she bent the straight wire into a hook and used it to lift a small bucket food from a vertical pipe.

While it sounds like may sound like a cute "human interest" story, it's not. If you think about it, Betty was presented to a problem that she has never encountered before, evaluated it, and solved the problem. Unless Betty was born in a "bucket full of food in pipes with straight wires laying around everywhere" environment, Betty showed real intelligence.

"I also watch you sleep."
Other wild crows have showed intelligence in common streets and interstates. Some crows have learned to place nuts in front of incoming traffic, wait for a speeding car to crush it open, and wait for the pedestrian lights to turn green before retrieving the freshly cracked nut. But if you thought that was intuitive, certain New Caledonian Crows have been known to use sticks and other tools to explore potentially dangerous objects. A human example of this would be using a stick to poke a dead body on your daily stroll, there's no need to use your bare hands and risk maniac psycho killers killing you late at night during his nightly slumber.

Because you always encounter dead bodies on your daily walk.

While people love quoting random science websites/papers about smart primates, I'll like to add that the New Caledonian Crow's intelligence is often compared to primates as either equal or superior. One experiment involved putting food inside a box out of the crow's reach and giving the crows a stick too short to reach the food. Instead, they were required to use the shorter stick to retrieve a slightly longer stick to reach the food inside. This experiment tested the ability for the crow to realize that a tool could be used for non-food objects and the ability to resist the urge of instantly going for the food. Six out of seven birds successful retrieved the food on their first try.

One experiment that occurred about three years ago involved face recognition. Is it possible for crows to recognize and remember faces for a significant amount of time? The experiment involved wearing two types of mask, a "dangerous mask" and a "neutral mask". Researchers wearing the "dangerous masks" captured and banded seven crows on campus of the University of Washington. A few months later, the researchers gave several volunteers the "dangerous masks" and instructed them to walk along certain routes, not bothering the crows. The crows began to become irritated and annoyed by the masked volunteers even when the mask was turned upside down or disguised with a hat.

One researcher noted that during one of the experiments, he was scolded by 47 of the 53 crows he encountered. Almost six times more crows than the initial trapping. The researchers hypothesized that the crows learn to recognize "danger" from their parents and other crows from their flock. It's like your good ol' buddy Tim telling you about that time he was kidnapped by strange men in lab coats wearing masks that attached evil tracking devices on his leg.

As you can see, crows are pretty smart. Perhaps now, you can correct your friends in non-snobbish ways when they say primates or other miscellaneous animals are 'extremely smart'. It's always rude to criticize your future avian overlord right?

President Of The World : 2023 A.D - ????