Over the past few months during sunrise walks with my dog I’ve become personally acquainted with one of the great symbols of autumn. A band of four crows roosts on the same utility poles in my neighborhood each morning, and I’ve concluded they have found the perfect vantage point from which to spot breakfast each day, packaged for them in brightly colored and greasy fast food bags spilling out of cars arriving at a large student parking lot. I realized one morning that the individual members of this small group are completely indistinguishable to me, and I also can’t be certain they are even the same four crows I observed yesterday or the day before. Which begs the question: just how the heck do crows tell each other apart, anyway?
Where better to search for an answer to one of nature’s little mysteries than my local public library, where I found a DVD documenting the ability of crows to recognize and remember individuals. Originally aired as an episode of the PBS series Nature in 2010, A Murder of Crows examines the mind and behavior of a species we usually demonize (the “murder” of the title is the traditional English collective noun for a group of crows) or ignore, but which has evolved in a tenuous partnership with humans, not unlike many other urban critters we sometimes consider to be pests. A Murder of Crows revolves around the research of John Marzluff at the University of Washington, whose experiment on a particular group of crows tests the extent to which they can recognize a person with whom they have come into contact, and pass that information on to other crows. Between scenes revealing Marzluff’s results as they unfold, the film offers an overview of crow intelligence, including footage of a bird using one tool to gain access to a second tool necessary for the completion of a task — a double-layered thought process that puts crows among the elite tool users of the animal world. Observations of crows gathering together to sustain acommunal silence in response to the death of one of their group hint at what also may be one of the more complex social systems found among any species.
For a more literary examination of my original question, I turned to Esther Woolfson’s Corvus: A Life with Birds. Blending memoir and science, Woolfson’s book recounts the years she shared her Aberdeen, Scotland, home with two feathered friends of the crow family: a rook named Chicken and a magpie named Spike. Her own rook’s displays of special warmth while greeting certain familiar (human) friends left the author with no doubts that “corvids’ recognition of one another is a prerequisite for the kind of organized, highly social existence they lead.” Corvus compiles scientific evidence, a cultural history of man’s relationship with crows, and personal tales of life with the birds in a contemplative style reminiscent of two iconic nature memoirs, Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water (another tale of a Scottish inter-species cohabitation: man and otter) and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Woolfson’s book holds its own among those classics, balancing fascination (her recollection of having been victim of a practical joke perpetrated by a magpie is so striking you will be talking about it with the next person you see) and a moving appreciation for the birds and her relationships with them.
So while I may never be able to tell if “my” crows are the same four I see most mornings, I’m now certain that they know whether or not they are, and probably recognize me. Perennially overlooked by humans, the crows blending into the scenery above us have a better idea what we are up to than we have of them. One thing they can’t know, though, and I wish I could somehow get it across to them. I don’t care how smart or what species you are, a lifetime of fast food for breakfast every day is going to do you in. So crows, get your tailfeathers over to my backyard and eat those Wheaties I keep leaving out for you. Or at least the mixed nuts, before the squirrels get them again. – Dan Coleman, Collection Development