Can We Be Friends With Crows?

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Crows are social, intelligent birds. Once omnipresent, they are disappearing from our landscape. What do we know about them?

Eight-year-old Gaby Mann’s most prized possession is a gift box. In it are shiny pieces of brown glass, a small silver ball, a black button, a blue paper clip, a yellow bead, a faded piece of foam, among many others. Her favourite item is a small pearl coloured heart. For Gaby, these gifts are priceless as she received them from her unusual friends – the neighbourhood crows.

She built a friendship and a rapport with crows (a practice which started as an accident) over a period of four years by feeding them. In return, they bought back many gifts for her – even her mother’s lost camera lens cap.

Gaby wasn’t the only person to befriend a crow. Lijana Holmes at the University of Washington fed a crow a regular meal of eggs and meat and got a symbolic ‘gift’ in return. The gift could be anything – a piece of glass, a trinket, nuts, and bolts – but it’s what authors John Marzluff and Tony Angell call the “ephemeral and profound connection to nature that many people crave”.

For ages, people claimed to have formed personal relationships with crows; bonding with them over a shared sense of intelligence and gratitude. What is it that draws people to crows (and often against them), that makes them so reciprocal to kindness?

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In “Gifts of the Crows”, Marzluff and Angell studied stories of human-crow friendships. What they found ought to change our stigmas about crows, omens and ‘birdbrains’. They found that crows share seven striking similarities with humans: language, delinquency, insight, frolic, passion and wrath, risk-taking and awareness.

It started when Marzluff wanted to see how well crows could remember a face. So he got some students together, kidnapped a few crows and attached coloured bands to their legs before releasing them. During this process, they each wore distinct rubber masks.

Crows hate being captured – and hold grudges against those who tag them. Over the next few months, the researchers exchanged their masks frequently and walked the streets of Seattle where the experiment took place.

Whenever they encountered the crows in question, the birds would ‘scold’ and dive-bomb only those wearing masks that were present during tagging. The ‘bad guy’ masks were of cavemen, with the ‘neutral’ mask being the face of Dick Cheney.

The experiment proved multiple points about crows: that they could remember distinct faces, hold grudges and coordinate attacks in a group (therefore proving their ability to communicate).

Communication, Regional Dialects, and Intelligence

Crows are also well-attuned to small differences – small families even develop their own regional dialects. Communication is important for the crow, who use it to share information about unsafe areas. When the town of Chatham, Ontario was inundated by over 600,000 crows, the locals came up with an action plan to bag at least half of them.

They started by killing one with birdshot – and got no further than that. By the next day, the crows had told each other of the range of the human’s weapon – and made sure to fly high above it. A mass murder of crows was thus averted by careful planning and communication.

Crows continue to surprise us with their intelligence. They bend twigs to get hard-to-reach morsels of food – with some species showing a genetic affinity for using tools. They drop stones into beakers with food inside, raising the water level using a method devised by Aristotle (even beating five-year-old humans at the same test).

They’ve been observed to use smoldering cigarette butts to “smoke parasites out from under their wings”.

Feathered Intellectuals

Crows are part of the Corvidae family, which includes ravens, rooks, magpies and others. It’s this family that busts the myth of the birdbrain – they have the highest brain-to-body ratio of any animal after humans and dolphins, perhaps equal to apes. Across history, members of this family have been revered and reviled alike for their cunning.

Members of this species have passed the ‘mirror test’ – where an animal is able to recognize its reflection in the mirror. It’s a simple test with a profound implication – that they are capable of recognizing the ‘self’.

Ravens are signs of both a blessing and a bad omen. Since the days of Charles II, legend has it that the royal family would fall if less than six ravens at any point of time were not guarding the Tower of London.

Part of India’s social fabric: Rituals, symbolism, and art

In India, they have a ritualistic, symbolic and culinary significance. In Tamil Nadu, full-fledged feasts are laid out by custom for the crows during Kanum Pongal festival – and it’s considered bad luck not to feed one at a funeral. Some restaurants sell ‘Crow Biryani’ with food bloggers putting up recipes online.

Crows have also inspired art. The artist R.K. Laxman treated them as muses, learning drawing by sketching them in their many poses. His love for crows was such that his wife felt that he loved them more than her. Speaking to a newspaper, she said:

He likes crows for their colour and also because the bird is very intelligent. He loves crows more than me

R.K. Laxman himself wrote how their existence inspired his art.

As a child, crow attracted me more than any other bird because it was alive on the landscape.

But crows have been growing increasingly scarce to sight in India – as fewer trees, too many electric poles and plastic-wrapped food contribute to their mass migration to foreign shores.

So can we relook at the intelligent, witty, social bird and acknowledge the other intelligent life forms we share our planet with? It’s an easy enough feat to feed a crow –  they’ll eat anything you offer them. It’s might just be the easiest friend you can make in a big city.

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