A cleverness of crows

Fable and anecdotal evidence has persuaded us that crows and other members of the family Corvidae are among the smartest in the animal kingdom. But is this reputation deserved? 

A cleverness of crows

The infamous crow family – mischief-makers, messengers and omens of death; beautiful in sleek iridescence and magisterial in their swagger.

Their scientific name is Corvidae, and as well as crows they include ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, choughs, treepies and nutcrackers.

There are over 120 species and they’re astoundingly successful in habitats ranging from the Arctic to deserts, from coasts to the Himalayas, and from wilderness to inner cities.

The notion of corvid cleverness dates to Ancient Greece and has been embedded into our collective consciousness.

But only in the past 30 years or so has the science existed to support it. Today, there are dedicated corvid research centres around the world, and they are making fascinating insights.


New Caledonian crow:

A new Caledonian crow using a tool to dislodge a worm © Auscape / Getty

Quickly and flexibly solves tool-related problems, such as choosing tools of the right size for a task, making new tools, using tools in the correct sequence, and (as in Aesop’s fable) using objects to raise the water level.


Eurasian magpie:

With its pied colouring, the Eurasian magpie is easy to identify © Garden Picture Library / Getty

May recognise itself in the mirror, suggesting an awareness of ‘self’. It the only bird known to possibly be able to do this. Can also identify individual humans, and respond accordingly.


Common raven:

The 'kronking' sound of a raven is unique and can be used to identify their presence, even when they can't be seen © Paul Hobson / Getty

Adapts its cache-protection strategies, including tactical deception, to suit each situation.

Able, like domestic dogs, to follow the gaze of humans. Can also pull strings to retrieve food.


Western scrub jay:

Western scrub jays are flexible with their cache-protection strategies © Rebecca Richardson / Getty

Has an episodic-like memory – it recalls what, when and where things are. Can plan for the future.

Like the common raven, it is also flexible in its cache-protection strategies.



Rooks have a distinctive white-grey and bare face © Oxford Scientific / Getty

Forms alliances and makes efforts to repair ‘friendships’ after conflicts.

Chooses appropriate tools and can fashion new ones. Uses objects to raise water level.


Eurasian jay:

One of the more reclusive corvids in the UK, Eurasian jays favour woodland habitats © Lillian King / Getty

Plans ahead in relation to food caching. Shows awareness of its partner’s preferences when sharing food. Uses objects to raise water level.


Carrion crow:

The carrion crow is a very adaptable species © BSIP / Getty

Drops nuts under passing vehicles to crack them, and uses rocks or tarmac to smash molluscs. Distinguishes familiar and non-familiar human voices.


Western jackdaw:

A jackdaw with rodent prey © Arterra / Getty

Recognises human faces and follows human cues, for example tracking our gaze.


Read the full article in our June 2017 issue

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