Avian Einsteins

The uncanny intelligence and emotion of smart birds—and how they're like humans

The Alluring Language of Crows and Ravens

Some crows and ravens can talk. The one pictured here used human words to assemble dogs on the U. of Montana campus. By flying ahead of the dogs calling "Here Boy!" the crow drove the dogs through students, possibly dislodging a sandwich or chips which the crow could eat. Read on to learn more about the language of birds. Read More


Having just returned a few days ago myself after spending three weeks in beautiful Alaska, where I saw numerous, very communicative ravens, your article caught my eye.

Ravens are interesting, amusing, comical, intelligent creatures that were a delight to watch!

The Tease & Inter-Species Play

Hi John,

Thanks for a wonderful article on these amazing birds. Corvids are a very interesting avian family, indeed.

That said, I was hoping to find a more detailed description of the crow who "herded" dogs on the U of Montana campus.

As a dog trainer I'm a constant student of play in dogs. So what struck me about the brief description given in the tease was that it sounded like the crow might have been engaging in a form of inter-species play, and not necessarily looking to dislodge food from the students, though that might have been a side benefit. What are your thoughts on that idea? After all, corvids seem to be the most playful (not to mention the most mischievous) of birds.

You might also be interested in a piece I posted yesterday about Spanish wolves who seem to prefer a habitat that shields them from human eyes even though food is scarcer there, the possible reason scrub jays will cache and re-cache their food when they're being watched, and how animals in general (and humans too) can feel when they're being watched. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/my-puppy-my-self/201207/wolves-scrub...

Best wishes!


Inter-species Play

Yes, Lee I enjoyed your very interesting piece about wolves and the power of the human gaze. Crows also become increasingly wary when we stare at them. We completed an experiment that tested approach distances of humans to crows when the human averted or did not avert gaze, and we could approach much closer with averted gaze. It seems we all share a sense of being watched and the importance of detecting watchers is certainly influential to animal behavior.

For your question about inter-species play. Yes, this may be part of the reason why the crow assembled dogs. We detail many other cases of crow and dog play in the book, including reference to a nice photo that appeared many years ago in Science that showed dog play bowing to a crow. We made the point that for interspecies play to happen the two species need to understand each others' language, which crows and dogs certainly appear to do.

I paste here the full Missoula dog episode for you to ponder further. Thanks for your insights. John

(From Gifts of the Crow, copyright Free Press, New York)

"Here Boy! Here Boy! The phrase was emphatic and clear. Whistles along with the words conveyed the caller’s urgency and quickly attracted the dog’s attention. It was early morning and Vampire, a young dark German shepherd, was barking and lunging in her kennel outside the house, making a ruckus sufficient to rouse her owner, Kevin Smith, from a deep slumber. Kevin went outside and commanded Vampire to be quiet, but she ignored him. Strangely, so did the instigator who continued calling out to the dog. Kevin was preparing to reprimand his dog and confront an apparently presumptuous intruder into a cool, Missoula, Montana, morning, when from behind Vampire’s kennel, bounded a crow that continued to call and whistle for the dog. Doubting reality, Kevin spoke to the crow that approached him and the bird cycled through a series of well-rehearsed phrases. This crow had plenty to say, but raised more questions than it answered.
The crow left Kevin’s property, but it didn’t go far. It would become well-known visitor to the nearby University of Montana campus for the next several weeks. There, the 1964 spring quarter was in session and the talking crow was holding class on the University’s central green, The Oval. Perched low on a branch of an oak tree, the crow called to its pupils—dogs of every breed, size, shape, and color. A pack of mutts focused their attention on the crow from the base of the bird’s lectern. The crow had likely rallied them, as it had tried to gather Vampire, from the nearby neighborhoods and lured them to this learned spot. But why? The answer was suggested when the school bell chimed and the students spilled into The Oval, heading to their next class. The crow took off low, only a few feet off the ground, with its devoted crowd of canines in noisy pursuit. In and out, the black corvine Pied Piper threaded a mayhem of canines through the students, creating confusion, wonder, and collision. When the students got to classes, the dog-and-crow show stopped, and the bird again resumed lecturing from a low branch to its rapt class of dogs.
We have few further details from Montana because the talking crow disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. We don’t know whether the crow ever got a reward for its antics, perhaps a dropped sandwich or bag of chips from a startled student, or where it learned to talk. Did it know what it was doing? Why did the dogs stay? Perhaps the crow stopped appearing because it migrated farther north or got within reach of one of its pursuers."


Hi John,

Thanks for the info. And thanks for reading my article!

I wish we'd corresponded sooner. I would have incorporated your research into my suppositions about how (and perhaps why) corvids behave the way do when they're being watched.


Crows and Rhythm

Loving your work with Crows.Just started getting to know the ones in my backyard a bit better.

Interested in understand more about crows rhythmic ability as I study this in humpback whale song.

In your book you write: "They ring like bells, drip like water, and have precise rhythm."

What particular aspects of rhythm do they display? Any insight would be much appreciated,


We live in the wild Canadian

We live in the wild Canadian north and get to watch Ravens all year round. Crows migrate north during the summer and leave during winter when it gets too cold for their tastes. We have raven friends that seem to know us and our pets. One raven in particular has taken a fancy to our Collie dog. They play together, flying and running up and down our driveway. Once the raven brought another friend over and make all sorts of funny sounds like it was telling the other bird about our dog. Then they both started playing with her. She loves the attention and neither species seems to consider the other prey or a threat.


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John Marzluff, Ph.D. is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington where he researches the behavior and conservation of birds, especially crows, ravens, and jays.


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