Crows Are More Intelligent Than You Think

Crows are among the smartest animals.
Crows are among the smartest animals. Mark Newman, Getty Images

​Crows, ravens, and jays belong to the Corvidae family of birds. Throughout history, people have marveled at the intelligence of these birds. They are so smart, we might find them a bit creepy. It doesn't help that a group of crows is called a "murder," that they are viewed by some as harbingers of death, or that the birds are clever enough to steal trinkets and food. A crow's brain is only about the size of a human thumb, so how smart could they be?

As Smart as a 7-Year-Old Child

Crows will steal eggs, food, and trinkets if they are left unguarded.
Crows will steal eggs, food, and trinkets if they are left unguarded. Michael Richards, Getty Images

While a crow's brain may seem small in comparison to a human brain, what matters is the size of the brain in relation to the size of the animal. Relative to its body, a crow's brain and a primate brain are comparable. According to Professor John Marzluff at the University of Washington's Aviation Conservation Lab, a crow is essentially a flying monkey. Whether it's a friendly monkey or more like a fiend from "The Wizard of Oz" depends a lot on what you've done to the crow (or any of its friends).

They Recognize Human Faces

Do you think a crow won't recognize you if you're wearing a mask? Think again.
Do you think a crow won't recognize you if you're wearing a mask? Think again. Fernando Trabanco Fotografía, Getty Images

Can you tell one crow from another? In this respect, a crow may be smarter than you because it can recognize individual human faces. Marzluff's team captured crows, tagged them, and released them. Members of the team wore different masks. Crows would dive-bomb and scold people wearing a mask, but only if the mask had been worn by someone who had messed with them.

They Talk About You to Other Crows

Crows communicate complex information to other crows.
Crows communicate complex information to other crows. Jérémie LeBlond-Fontaine, Getty Images

If you think two crows watching you and cawing at each other are talking about you, you're probably right. In Marzluff's study, even crows that were never captured attacked scientists. How did the crows describe their attackers to other crows? Crow communication is poorly understood. The intensity, rhythm, and duration of caws seems to form the basis of a possible language.

They Remember What You Did

Whatever you did, every crow knows about it.
Whatever you did, every crow knows about it. Franz Aberham, Getty Images

It turns out crows can pass on a grudge to their offspring — even subsequent generations of crows harassed masked scientists.

Another case of crow memory comes from Chatham, Ontario. Around half a million crows would stop in Chatham on their migration route, posing a threat to the farming community's crops. The mayor of the town declared war on crows and the hunt began. Since then, the crows have bypassed Chatham, flying high enough to avoid being shot. This had not, however, stopped them from leaving droppings all over the municipality.

They Use Tools and Solve Problems

New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides), using tool to dislodge a worm.
New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides), using tool to dislodge a worm. Auscape, Getty Images

While several species use tools, crows are the only non-primates that make new tools. In addition to using sticks as spears and hooks, crows will bend wire to make tools, even if they have never encountered wire before.

In Aesop's fable of "The Crow and the Pitcher", a thirsty crow drops stones into a water pitcher to raise the water level to take a drink. Scientists tested whether crows really are this smart. They placed a floating treat in a deep tube. The crows in the test dropped dense objects into the water until the treat floated within reach. They didn't select objects that would float in the water, nor did they select ones that were too large for the container. Human children gain this understanding of volume displacement around the ages of five to seven.

Crows Plan for the Future

This crow won't hide its food when you're watching. Crows consider the behavior of others when they make their plans.
This crow won't hide its food when you're watching. Crows consider the behavior of others when they make their plans. DESPITE STRAIGHT LINES (Paul Williams), Getty Images

Planning for the future isn't only a human trait. For example squirrels cache nuts to store food for lean times. Crows not only plan for future events, but consider the thinking of other crows. When a crow caches food, it looks around to see if it's being observed. If it sees another animal is watching, the crow will pretend to hide its treasure, but will really stash it in its feathers. The crow then flies away to find a new secret spot. If a crow sees another crow hiding its prize, it knows about this little game of bait-and-switch and won't be fooled. Instead, it will follow the first crow to discover its new hoard.

They Adapt to New Situations

Crows have adapted to live with people.
Crows have adapted to live with people. Betsie Van der Meer, Getty Images

Crows have adapted to life in a human world. They watch what we do and learn from us. Crows have been seen to drop nuts in traffic lanes, so the cars will crack them open. They will even watch traffic lights, only retrieving the nut when the crosswalk sign is lit. This in itself probably makes the crow smarter than most pedestrians. Crows have been known to memorize restaurant schedules and garbage days, to take advantage of prime scavenging times.

They Understand Analogies

Understanding an analogy indicates advanced intelligence.
Understanding an analogy indicates advanced intelligence. Chris Stein, Getty Images

Do you remember the "analogy" section of the SAT test? While a crow is unlikely to outscore you on a standardized test, they do understand abstract concepts, including analogies.

Ed Wasserman and his Moscow-based team trained crows to match items that were the same as each other (same color, same shape, or same number). Next, the birds were tested to see if they could match objects that had the same relationship to each other. For example, a circle and a square would be analogous to red and green rather than to two oranges. The crows grasped the concept the first time, without any training in the concepts of "same and different."

They Can Outsmart Your Pets (Maybe)

It's difficult to compare the intelligence of different species because they adapt to situations differently.
It's difficult to compare the intelligence of different species because they adapt to situations differently. Dirk Butenschön / EyeEm, Getty Images

Cats and dogs can solve relatively complex problems, but they can't make and use tools. In this respect, you could say a crow is smarter that Fido and Fluffy. If your pet is a parrot, its intelligence is as sophisticated as a crow's. Yet, intelligence is complicated and difficult to measure. Parrots have curved beaks, so it's harder for them to use tools. Similarly, dogs don't use tools, but they have adapted to work with humans to get their needs met. Cats have mastered humanity to the point of being worshiped. Which species would you say is smartest?

Modern scientists recognize it's practically impossible to apply an intelligence test across different species because an animal's skill at problem-solving, memory, and awareness depend on its body shape and habitat as much as on its brain. Yet, even by the same standards used to measure human intelligence, crows are super smart.

References and Suggested Reading

  • Goodwin D. (1983). Crows of the World. Queensland University Press, St Lucia, Qld.
  • Klein, Joshua (2008). "The amazing intelligence of crows". TED conference. Retrieved January 1, 2018.
  • Rincon, Paul (22 February 2005). "Science/Nature | Crows and jays top bird IQ scale". BBC News. Retrieved January 1, 2018.
  • Rogers, Lesley J.; Kaplan, Gisela T. (2004). Comparative vertebrate cognition: are primates superior to non-primates?. New York, New York: Springer.
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Crows Are More Intelligent Than You Think." ThoughtCo, Jan. 10, 2018, thoughtco.com/crows-are-more-intelligent-than-you-think-4156896. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2018, January 10). Crows Are More Intelligent Than You Think. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/crows-are-more-intelligent-than-you-think-4156896 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Crows Are More Intelligent Than You Think." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/crows-are-more-intelligent-than-you-think-4156896 (accessed January 20, 2018).