Sunday, February 27, 2011

CrowWatch--An Experiment

Corvus corone...Hashibosogarasu... Carrion Crow

A couple of weeks ago, biologist Jerry Coyne over at WEIT featured a post on Corvid Savants which just fascinated the heck out of me:-))

It reminded me of a TED talk a while back by Joshua Klein on the Intelligence of Crows , which stayed in my mind for a long time after watching it because I agreed so strongly with Klein's motives for studying them.  In his TED talk he says he was goaded into action by an acquaintance at a party, who maintained that crows were incorrigible pests and ought to be systematically exterminated.  Surely humans are inadvertently responsible for enough extinctions already without adding intentional exterminations to the ever-lengthening list of shame?  His response--which I applaud--was to attempt to "turn the longstanding rivalry between man and crow into something profiting both species."

Corvus macrorhynchos...Jungle Crow...Hashibutogarasu
I've been watching crows here in Japan for quite a while--I've always admired their glossy black feathers and cheeky intelligence.  But I watched without looking anything up, and so didn't realize that there were, in fact, two species I was seeing.  Before Cici was born, we lived up in Tokyo, and I (like everyone else) was half fascinated, half frightened of the enormous Jungle Crows who raided trash piles (kitchen trash--they left the plastic trash alone, no fools they;-) around the city.  I remember hearing that they were an invasive species, having come up from Southeast Asia, and that they were becoming unmanageable pests and should be culled.  I personally didn't see why people couldn't simply compost more and devise a better system for trash pick-up than plastic garbage bags on the curb.  Eventually the city ward offices passed out nets, but the problem remains (since people tend not to cover their garbage completely with the nets--again, human fail).  My kitty-cat, Clio, used to get all excited watching the crows at the trash pile outside, lashing her tail and ik-ik-ik-ikking at them.  I just shook my head at her.  *Mercy*--those crows were bigger than she was!  Jungle Crows run to about 56cm in length, second only to Ravens in size.  They'd have carried Clio off like the Winged Monkeys in the Wizard of Oz for sure.

Heckel and Jeckyl;-)
 When we moved from Tokyo to Yokohama, one of the first things I noticed was the absence of crows at the trash pile.  That lasted 'til about 4 years ago...suddenly one day, the Jungle Crows had discovered our trash pick up point (and also, which days were household trash and which were plastic or recyclables and not worth bothering with).  Walking to the road to put out garbage on a quiet Saturday morning, my steps are the alarm--a sudden, yet unhurried, liftoff and nearly a dozen dark shapes rise on a couple of slow wingbeats to power lines and branches overhead.  I've disturbed their feasting--I see someone's had Nabe for dinner, the not-quite-empty crab legs are strewn out into the road now...  If I look up, they watch me watching them.  And though they've repaired to perches out of reach, they don't seem especially disturbed by me.  These are intelligent creatures, no doubt.

These observations were in my mind when I watched--with pleasure, rather than astonishment--Betty the New Caledonian crow's wire-bending accomplishments, and the traffic-light-obeying Carrion crows of Sendai using traffic to crack their nuts (both videos posted in the WEIT article, linked above).  I was interested, too, to learn how long they live (20 years or so!) and how social they are (like many raptors, corvids tend to be monogamous--generally mating for life).  After reading Dr. Coyne's article at WEIT, I looked up Joshua Klein's TED talk and watched it again--and was intrigued by his recounting of the University of Washington grad students who had to wear masks and wigs when banding crows, so as not to be harassed by those same crows for the rest of their grad school days.  Crows can recognize you--and remember you.

The very next morning, continuing up the river after walking the kids to school, I was surprised to see three crows swoop in to land on the railing *right* next to a woman walking her dog.  When she came toward me, I smiled and said she must have been surprised to have a crow land so close to her.  She wasn't, though.  *I* was surprised when she said that the crows knew her because she always fed them some of her dog's food pellets (the soft kind, it looked like to me) when she walked her dog.  I mentioned that I'd read that crows were actually very intelligent and could recognize individual faces--she said, yes, they did recognize her.  I watched her walk away, and was surprised by how...politely the crows waited for her to put food down for them.  I got it on video, so you can watch, too:-))

Did you see how they sat very close to her on the rail, yet didn't harass her in any way?  No flapping of wings in her face, nor pecking, nor loud cawing.  Two of the three are the big Jungle Crow (the Large-billed Crow--their beaks are a good deal thicker than those of the Carrion Crow, who can be seen right at the end of the video).  Well, I was hooked, I tell you.  I decided right there to try to find some crows a little closer to home to befriend.  Can I get them to recognize me?  The test will be, after I think they *do* recognize me, to go to the usual spot wearing a mask (I'm thinking the Oni Mask from Setsubun will do the trick...;-) and see whether they still come or not.

Next installment:  A Group of Crows Found

Now reading:

Bernd Heinrich's Mind of the Raven
Corvid Cognition (N. Clayton and N. Emery; Current Biology, Vol 15, No3,  R80)
Can Animals Recall the Past and Plan for the Future? (N. Clayton, T. Bussey, A. Dickinson;  Neuroscience Vol 4, Aug 2003, pp. 685-691)

Mata asobou, ne!


  1. Just minutes ago I was watching a crow walking down a neighbour's roof in a zig-zag pattern. It could have flown down, but I think he was looking for treats hidden among the tiles, or he could have walked in a straight line, but then he'd have lost his balance due to the angle of the roof. A zig-zag trek was all that made sense. I was very amused. I love crows. OuO

  2. They really are beautiful birds; like starlings, they're so common that people don't notice their beauty. And they're smart too, and they just get a BAD RAP. I'll be curious to see if they do learn to recognize you.

  3. (Tim Harris) I love crows (except when they are killing young owls), and once in childhood was adopted by a jackdaw, who had once I suppose been tame, on the local common; but, alas, my parents wouldn't allow me to keep it. Subsequently, when I went out to the common, it would come to me, so obviously they do recognise you. Bernd Heinrich is a very good writer; I've just read his Bumblebee Economics (together with Thomas Seeley's fascinating Honeybee Democracy). I look forward to more on crows - though I leave for a performance in London on the 8th so might not be able to keep up as much as I should like to.