Crows are smarter than you might think

Last Monday we were coming back from an excellent day of birding and when we reached the city limits we saw a scene straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds. The sky was filled with black birds heading northwest.

This smart crow uses a bent wire to retrieve food from a glass cylinder.

This smart crow uses a bent wire to retrieve food from a glass cylinder.

Last Monday we were coming back from an excellent day of birding and when we reached the city limits we saw a scene straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The sky was filled with black birds heading northwest. They were crows heading for their roosting spot for the night. I knew where they were headed, so we went to Riverview Drive and there they were, hundreds upon hundreds of them, perched in the trees, cawing.

This is a yearly occurrence. Just before birds migrate many of them will flock together. Flocking is a term that is used to describe the behaviour of normally solitary animals that will band together for three different reasons: feeding, travel, and defence. So what is happening is that the crows are preparing to migrate. At this time of year we can also find flocks of robins, or mountain bluebirds.

I once saw a flock of about 30 bluebirds; it was quite the sight to see. They were perched on fence posts and on the ground. Canada Geese do the same. If you want to see this, go to McKenzie Trails. The birds come in about 10 in the morning and around 6 in the evening they leave. It will all be quiet and then they will start to honk, at first slowly and then faster and faster until about 20 geese lift up off the water and fly away.

The pond is then quiet for another few minutes and then a honk will be heard, getting faster and faster until another 20 or so geese fly away. This continues for about 30 minutes and the pond will be empty of geese.

It has been a few years since I went down to McKenzie Trails to watch the geese doing this so I’m not sure if this is still one of their staging areas. I have this problem: “so many birds, so little time.” I just can’t be everywhere at once.

But back to the crows. I’m sure the neighbours do not appreciate the fact that the crows are roosting in their backyards in those numbers, but it really is a sight to see.

But, those of you in Highland Green who have to put up with this year after year, can be assured that it will end soon. The crows will fly south and they won’t be hanging around that area in large flocks again till next year about this time.

Crows seem to inspire the absolute wrong feeling in people. Most people don’t like them. They are noisy and obnoxious and there are lots of them. I, on the other hand, have nothing against crows. In fact, I think they are kind of neat. They certainly are intelligent. I watched a movie on YouTube which showed how smart they are.

A crow was given a cylinder with food in the bottom and a piece of metal wire. The crow tried to stab the food with the wire but it kept slipping off so it bent the wire into a hook shape and got the food that way. It figured that out all on its own. Ingenious, eh?

Crows have demonstrated their intelligence in other ways. In Japan, crows will drop nuts onto a roadway and wait for a car to drive over the nuts, cracking them open. Then they go out onto the road when the coast is clear and eat the cracked nut.

A university somewhere, can’t remember exactly where, did a study on crows. The students wore masks and were mean to the birds. The people without the masks were nice to them. Then they turned them loose and whenever a person walked around the campus with the masks, the crows would swoop them and call out warnings to the other crows. The researchers found that the crows taught their offspring to beware the people with that particular mask and so the next generation of crows would also act that way towards anyone wearing that mask.

When you take all that into consideration, crows can’t be all that bad, can they? I think Hitchcock did crows and ravens a disservice with that particular movie. We should appreciate and enjoy them instead of being annoyed with them or frightened of them.

Judy Boyd is a naturalist with the Red Deer River Naturalists.

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