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Snowboarding Crows: The Plot Thickens

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

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On Friday, I quickly posted this video, which shows a crow – likely a hooded crow (thanks to a commenter at Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog for the ID) – appearing to “snowboard” down the roof of a Russian building, using a small object as a makeshift snowboard.

Over at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal also picked up the video, and wrote: “Science Can Neither Explain Nor Deny the Awesomeness of This Sledding Crow.”

What he meant was that a Youtube video of an animal doing something that looks, to humans, like play, isn’t enough information to reach any meaningful conclusions. He explains:

There are two problems with making much of the video. First, scientists need context. We don’t know where the bird is or how it learned this trick. There’s not much to say without the proper markers of meaning that surround this kind of behavioral evidence.

Second, when humans look at a crow doing something human-like, they have a very hard time not seeing themselves as the crow.

“Human beings have a strong, strong, strong tendency that if we see an animal do something that’s analogous to what we do, like use a tool or answer an arithmetic question, we assume that the animal is doing it and understands the situation in the same way we do,” [Alan Kamil, an expert on corvid behavior] said. “And sometimes that’s true but more often it’s false.”

Kamil (and Madrigal) are right, of course. This video is just an anecdote, a single instance of an animal engaging in a particular behavior. However, digging into the scientific literature has revealed a bit more about corvids, the group of birds including the snowboarding hooded crow in the video, and their propensity for play.

In 1998, comparative psychologist Marc Bekoff together with John Byers, put together a book called Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives. It contains a chapter titled Play in common ravens, written by University of Vermont biologists Bernd Heinrich and Rachel Smolker.

Most relevant to us, at this time, is the following passage, which should strike the reader as familiar.

Observers from Alaskan and Northern Canadian towns routinely reported to us seeing ravens slide down steep snow covered roofs, only to fly or walk back up and repeat the slide. Ravens in our Maine aviary also roll down mounds of snow, and even do so on their backs with a stick held in the feet! David Lidstone, observing ravens at a deer carcass in Maine during the first snow storm of the year, reported that ‘at least three birds flew up to a stump on a 2-3m incline, and then slid down the slope on their backs. Twice the sliding bird was holding a stick in its talons.’ Gwinner (1966) reported seeing his captive ravens repeatedly sliding down a board. We see no obvious utilitarian function for sliding behavior. Perhaps it is a social display (not necessarily play) involved in securing status or mates by ‘showing off’ or drawing attention to themselves.

While this doesn’t tell us if this particular behavior is to be considered play, it does tell us that this type of behavior is probably common among corvids. The crow from the youtube video is clearly not alone among corvids in its love of winter sports.

Earlier: Friday Fun: Snowboarding Crow

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

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

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  1. 1. paulfnorris 6:55 pm 01/16/2012

    To help with the visual of a raven rolling in the snow, here’s a nice little PBS “Nature” clip of a raven doing a barrel roll down a snowy slope:

    Link to this
  2. 2. Sean McCann 7:52 pm 01/16/2012

    Now here is an interesting video of corvid behaviour:

    Link to this
  3. 3. OXYMAN 1:46 pm 01/17/2012

    yes it is well documented crows and ravens play. I have picked up ornithology a few yrs back after retiring (freedom 37!) and can say I regret not keeping all of the links but you can easily research them via the main search engines. Also, they exhibit incredibly astounding intelligence and not just this ..PLEASE VIEW:

    Link to this
  4. 4. OXYMAN 1:48 pm 01/17/2012

    and PLEASE = – you gt my drift?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Storm 9:45 pm 01/18/2012

    Crows have long held a fascination for me. One of my favorite things to do on very windy days is to go outdoors and watch the neighbourhood crows launch themselves off of building tops into the gusts. They have favorite lauch sites that they come back to over and over. They careen madly, often in small groups, then come back, land, and relaunch in the next big gust.
    Only some of the group actualy take part, and it’s easy to get the impression of twenty-something humans showing off for each other.
    It’s risky – they don’t always stay in controll – but they seem to be having the time of their lives.

    Link to this
  6. 6. gearbuzz 5:13 am 01/19/2012

    Scientists worry about the influenza of anthropomorphizing (although they don’t mind selling that trained detachment (see Doctors selling drugs, or scientists disputing fossil fuels emissions as harmful)but ordinaries such myself have no problem in recognizing the enormity of this video: that IS intelligence. I remember being told by a museum curator that the Native Americans had zero documents…so hence they didn’t exist in his mind. SETI will always be a redundancy: we simply refuse to acknowledge co-existence with other beings…I put what I’m seeing on a level with the Christian miracles.

    Link to this
  7. 7. BrendanH 3:18 pm 01/19/2012

    ID’ed on Andy Revkin’s blog? The second comment on your very own blog nailed it the day before[*], but presumably you don’t consider that blog worth reading :-)

    [* But I screwed up the html somewhat...]

    Link to this
  8. 8. Earthdave 9:02 am 01/22/2012

    Is it just me, or is it not obvious that the crow is trying to eat (or at least peck) the item that it is standing on. And it moves to the peak of the roof where it can try to balance to work on it. It ‘rides’ the item down the slope by accident, and doesn’t let go because it doesn’t want to lose the food. Why do we need to see it ‘playing’ when a more utilitarian explanation is more likely? Note that when it is at the top later, it does not try to head down again. It is trying to stay there. Crows are very smart, no denying that. Smart enough to stick to foraging instead of risking its neck for ‘thrills’.

    Link to this
  9. 9. LlamaLadySG 6:00 pm 01/22/2012

    I’ve watched a crow “surf” on an air current at the edge of a cliff, hanging in the air in one spot with obvious intention for the better part of a minute. I think he was watching us while we were watching him. I’ve also observed swallows soaring around an escarpment in the evening–maybe they were catching bugs, but I doubt the sparrows who joined in the fun were. It looked much more like play for the joy of it.

    Link to this

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