by Kat Petersen
Their iconic black glistening feathers, generalist beak, and recognizable “caw” makes them easily identifiable to even non-birders: The American Crow. Crows are one of the most common and widespread genus of birds in the world. On a recent trip to Thailand, I was awoken with the familiar call of a crow who was remarkably identical to our American Crow.
If these birds are so abundant and universal, what makes them so interesting? Why do researchers and birders alike find constant intrigue and perpetual fascination with these mundane avians? The answer is their intelligence. Similar to many quandaries in the animal kingdom, there is still much humans do not know about the behavior of the crow.
Crows are highly social and seldom seen alone. Where there is one, another is surely lingering near. They are monogamous and mate for life. Living in family groups, they share territory with both grown offspring and new broods. Where resources are abundant, they can be found in large flocks of both related and unrelated birds.
John Marzluff, the famous corvid researcher who observed crows’ ability for facial recognition, writes in “Gift of the Crow”, that our fascination with corvids stems from their intellect. The novel describes the combination of their perception and intelligence to be a reflection of humanity’s own cognition. Another telling discovery of corvid intelligence is their unique ability to build compound tools. Previously only described in primates and humans, this as a phenomenal indicator of the depth of cognition crows have. But beyond their outstanding memory and ability for complex problem solving, a crow’s playful nature and social interactions indicates another unique aspect of its unwavering intelligence.
In recent studies of wildlife behavior, scientists acknowledge the importance of social play in cognitive development. The brain activity used during social play allows cognitive abilities to grow in a portion of the brain not used by other animals.
Social play has been observed in an array of mammals, but the most elaborate playful interactions is exhibited in animals such as chimpanzees, wolves, and humans. As for birds, corvids are known to have some of the most complex and robust social interactions, that which is comparable to canids and primates.
For over a century play behavior has been noted in 10 orders of birds. However, most of these behaviors are solitary play. One example is locomotory play. If you have ever spied a raptor gliding along the wind in aerobic flight, going nowhere but appearing to enjoy its time in the sky, this is locomotory play. However, few avian species are known to find fun interacting with other birds. Among the incredibly rare birds who have fun with one another are crows!
Social play is extremely difficult to document in birds and still vastly unexplored in corvids by biologists. But the good news is you can view these interactions in your own backyard! They can be seen toying with one another strictly for the amusement.
So next time you see the crows outside your window, take a second to watch, and see their enjoyment with one another. May you be reminded of their incredible social intelligence and how we may share more in common with crows than it seems.