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Crows Like My Pal George Aren’t Just Smart, They’re Also Jokers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Corvid cleverness is making news lately. Two of my favorite science writers, Sharon Begley and James Gorman, describe a variety of experiments—reported in PLOS One by researchers in New Zealand–in which crows mimic the hero of Aesop’s ancient fable “The Crow and the Pitcher.” By dropping objects into containers of water, crows raise the water’s level so they can snatch floating food. Most human kids can’t solve this problem until they are five or older.

The intelligence of crows is clearly adaptive, but what about their sense of humor?

I used to be married to a woman who nursed injured and orphaned birds before releasing them back into the wild, so I have first-hand experience of crows’ intelligence—and sense of humor. Take, for example, George, an orphan whom Suzie, my ex-wife, raised a dozen summers ago.

After George mastered flying indoors, Suzie released him outside. Like many birds she raised, he was fond of his human family, so he hung around for a while. George was mischievous, as corvids tend to be. If I was outside, cutting the lawn, say, George liked to fly straight at my face and veer away at the last second as I flinched. If I sat on the deck overlooking our lawn, reading a newspaper or eating lunch, George got a kick out of swooping down on me to peck at my food or newspaper.

One day I was in the house and heard all this yelling outside. I went downstairs and found Suzie and our two kids—Mac, who was eight, and Skye, seven—milling around outside the big bird cage in our backyard. The cage was a cube, eight feet long on each side, made of wood and chicken wire.

The cage had a door with a bolt latch on the outside. Mac and Skye often locked each other inside the cage for fun. Mac and Skye claimed that they had been playing in the cage when George had shut the door behind them and locked them in. Suzie, hearing Mac and Skye yelling, had just unlocked the door and let them out.

As Suzie, Mac and Skye told me this tale, George stood on the grass watching us with his head cocked, looking pleased with himself.

I nonetheless found the story hard to believe, especially since my wife and children liked to kid me. So I sent Suzie, Mac and Skye to the deck, about 30 feet away. Then I entered the cage. I turned my back on the door and on George, and a moment later I heard wings flapping. I turned just in time to see George fly up to the middle of door, which I had left ajar. He hooked his talons onto the chicken wire just below the door’s latch, flapped his wings until the door eased shut and slid the latch over with his beak, locking me in. Then, I swear, George grinned.

The cognitive talents of crows raise questions about the evolution of intelligence, and “suggest that an understanding of cause and effect evolved fairly early,” as Begley puts it.

Hanging out with George and other crows makes me wonder as well about the evolution of humor. Is humor a case of convergent evolution, a trait that evolved independently in separate lineages? And if so, is humor a spandrel, a non-adaptive side effect of intelligence, or did it originally serve some reproductive purpose?

The philosopher David Rothenberg has suggested that birds sing not just to attract mates but for fun. Perhaps crows goof on other creatures for the same reason.

Illustration of “The Crow and the Pitcher” by Milo Winter, 1919, from Wikimedia Commons,

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 3:09 pm 04/16/2014

    I generally do not believe in captive animals, much less in cages.
    The day one walks in and sits down in a happy manner (uncoerced)is the day I might have a pet.
    Personally I don’t like the carrion eater crows. They are sly it is true.
    The racket they make is no song.

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  2. 2. jimfromcanada 3:14 pm 04/16/2014

    I think, tuned, that you are tuned out. In other words you miss the point of the article.

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  3. 3. Mythusmage 3:23 pm 04/16/2014

    And ignores one feature, that the crow associated with the humans voluntarily.

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  4. 4. rationalrevolution 4:57 pm 04/16/2014

    My degree is in biology. I’m a software developer. I also do a lot of personal work on religion.

    It is my hypothesis that in fact people are WORSE at determining cause and effect than most other animals.

    The reason is this. What I thin human intelligence “IS”, is actually hyper-association, and I think that this explains our art, music, language, religion, etc.

    I think that in fact human being are the most superstitious animals, and the reason for this is that what our brains do is they are super-pattern finders. Our brains find lots and lots and lots of patterns that most animals don’t find. By definition, however, a lot of these patterns are “false”, i.e. non-causal.

    So, what I think is that most animals see ONLY real cause and effect relationships, because their brains find relatively few relationships at all. Thus, animals aren’t superstitious.

    People, on the other hand, see someone dancing in a field, and then it rains a day later and their brain associates the dancing with the rain, attributing cause and effect to it, whereas other animals would never do this.

    So basically, while some animals like a squirrel may observe a scene and see 1 or 2 patterns/cause and effect events. Those 1 or 2 events would be true causal events.

    A person on the other hand may view the same scene and see dozens of patterns/cause effect relationships.

    Now, of those dozens of perceived cause effect events, half are actually non-causal. But, because our brains detect so many, even though half are bogus, we still also find more true cause & effect relationships than other animals.

    This makes humans both the best at finding patterns and also the most likely to MIS-PERCEIVE the world.

    We understand the most, but we also MIS-understand the most.

    This is why we have art, music, and religion. These things all flow from the same hyperactive pattern finding aspects of our brains.

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  5. 5. rshoff2 8:10 pm 04/16/2014

    You are not a crow, John! However, it is obvious (to me) after reading your SCIAM blogs that you have a well-honed, clever, cynical yet optimistic (hopeful maybe) sense of humor.

    Perhaps the crow comes to the solution of buoyancy quicker than its’ human counterpart because it has a smaller repertoire to sort through.

    I think you would probably devise several impressive solutions while fully accessing the merits of each. Thereby, and unfortunately, letting the good old crow beat you to the punch.

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  6. 6. rshoff2 8:13 pm 04/16/2014

    assessing, dagnabit. As in to a-s-s-e-s-s !

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  7. 7. tuned 11:31 pm 04/16/2014

    “the big bird cage in our backyard. The cage was a cube, eight feet long on each side, made of wood and chicken wire”.
    Sure you guys. The crows built that just to practice Houdini moves.
    Get outta town.

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  8. 8. tuned 11:37 pm 04/16/2014

    “Then, I swear, George grinned.”
    I suppose Dr. Seuss was the author?
    BTW. I’ve seen dogs and cats turn doorknobs and open doors on youtube.
    So what?

    “And ignores one feature, that the crow associated with the humans voluntarily.”
    George was made dependent by the humans due to injury.
    Not the same at all as a normal healthy animal “walking” in and taking up happy residence just on the basis of
    YOUR OWN winning grin.
    Sounds like some Sea World workers got miffed at my “not in captivity” statement.

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  9. 9. m12345 6:19 am 04/17/2014

    2 Things

    They could evolve to be flightless and thus put on mass and eventually evolve into a reasonably smart race.

    They could grow bigger, just like rats are doing with the endless food sources available to them from us. Monster crows are coming soon.

    I think crows have an equivalent iq, creativeness of a 7 year old. They probably tell jokes sometimes and have a very dry sense of humour, they certainly can play jokes on people.

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  10. 10. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:42 am 04/17/2014

    These observations match research on crow family, which show that eg. magpies recognize themselves in the mirror and jays can predict their own future events.

    Which raises lots of scientific questions and a practical one: should crows be more protected from human cruelty? Currently, one can shoot and poison crows without limits. You wouldn’t treat chimpanzees and dolphins as just any animals.

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  11. 11. Tony_Who 12:09 pm 04/17/2014

    Thanks to the Crow that gave me French fries when I was starving.


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  12. 12. lesizz 2:34 pm 04/21/2014

    Interesting comments, especially from rationalrevolution, and with the exception of tuned, who puts what s(he) has to say in a troll-ish style.

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  13. 13. darkspace 3:39 pm 04/21/2014

    It amazes me so little reference is made of Charles Darwin’s book “The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals” The long dominance of behaviorist doctrine has disallowed the discussion of subjective states as a scientific pursuit. Timidity about attributing emotion to animals out of fear of behaviorist scorn has held science back immensely, a climax was reached in the 80′s when some lead behaviorists began to suggest consciousness itself is an illusion and does not actually exist, this tells me that the limited discipline of behaviorism applied as an absolute stricture is disastrous for science. Amusement is one of the basic emotions identified by Darwin, its function is obvious, to alert an animal to what ever is erroneous and could go wrong, play is about a safe means of memorizing all the possible failures that can occur so as to better avoid them in a serious situation, it is ERROR that makes us laugh although most animals do not vocalize when they laugh, its a breathing pattern where air is rapidly expelled as though the individual were rejecting the air that might facilitate mental investment, laughter is a form of error avoidance and so is highly adaptive, the crow was trying to teach the human a lesson about unintended consequences, that the crow could make an error of certain behaviors for the human, namely humans who do not keep their eyes on the crow when entering lockable cages!That crow was acting as a teacher, education is a two way street, the conditioner is also the conditioned.

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  14. 14. American Muse 5:45 pm 04/23/2014

    An arresting story indeed!

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  15. 15. PacificNW 6:33 pm 04/23/2014

    I volunteered at a wildlife rehab center for years and crows became one of my favorites. They received a special diet depending on their illness or injury, and got a treat of blackberries (fresh when possible) afterwards. They are smart and watch each other. They would turn over the special diet container dumping the food. They trained me to give them the berries first – after which, they would eat the special food at their leisure. Dessert first! There were so many clever actions taken by the crows, I was always laughing at how often they would outsmart me.

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  16. 16. WilliamGrogan 3:32 am 04/24/2014

    On two very distinct occasions I have seen my dog being teased by Crows. Once in a field, the dog would pretend to mooch around and then dart for the Crow. The Crow would fly into the air over the dog and down 20ft away and stare at the dog. The dog then repeated the pretence of sniffing around and then lunge at the Crow who repeated the exercise. A second time, the Crow was on a high wall and would drop down onto the grass and the dog would make a go for the Crow and the Crow causally flew back onto the wall. When the dog moved away the Crow did the same again. Amazing to watch. The fool certainly appeared to be the dog on both occasions.

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