Avian Einsteins

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

Body Language in Crows

A few considerations

When a fearless crow has a direct, unimpeded path to a nearby food source, the adrenalin kicks in and the bird rapidly hops in a beeline to the meal. Familiar with this particular food and confident in its environment, the bird knows it can go quickly and seize the prize. Its speed may be determined by the fact that its prey may be moving, or that there’s competition for it from other crows.

Like a famished kid bolting for a plate of cookies, a crow on the ground employs a series of jumps forward to seize the prize. The crow at the drive-in knows, by previous experience and a good memory, that a particularly colored food wrapper often contains appetizing scraps.

This is familiar territory to the crow; it knows where its going and what it normally finds here. It spots such a wrapper and, looking and listening, the hungry bird determines that no threats are visible or audible. Processing this information, a decision is made that the path is safe even though no other crows are present. It must beat the competition to get to the food first, so it applies this knowledge to accelerate its rush to reach the prize.

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Dominance and Submission

Perhaps the most obvious body language in corvids are the demonstrative movements of body and feather tracks suggesting which birds are dominant and which are submissive. While there are innumerable subtleties in these displays that we have yet to understand, there’s little mystery involved when a dominant bird struts into the midst of an assembly of birds on the ground and the sea of crows parts before it. The bird knows its place in the crow community and with elevated contour and facial feathers it lets the others know too.

Submissive and non-challenging birds step out of the path of the dominant ones, but they may also assume postures that ultimately have benefits. What’s this: several crows are feeding and a single bird stands to one side? Likely as not, this is a young bird, unsure of its place in the hierarchy of the crow gathering. It has been driven off by dominant birds, an episode it wishes not to have repeated. Confronting one of the feeding crows, it leans forward, cawing, with beak open and wings flapping. It worked before to elicit a handout, and it works again.

Just as the body language, (postures, facial expressions, movement) can indicate the psychological state in people, so, too, can it in crows. Co-evolved with humans, they are readily available for observation, whether scavenging at the local shopping mall and drive-in, or awaiting handouts from picnickers in the park. To consider these species and their states of mind, here are a few more obvious physical activities one might watch for. While most are related to food-seeking, there are others that alert the observer that the bird has something else on its mind.

The Walking Survey

Suggesting casual confidence, the crow saunters about at an almost leisurely pace. It knows the territory and is familiar with the activity in this setting. Taking its time to check out the most minute crevice or turning each shred of paper to see what’s beneath, the crow appears not unlike the casual shopper looking from one shelf to the next as he or she moves down the aisle of the supermarket.

The Oblique Approach

While keeping its eye on a subject, the crow that appears to head toward something of interest in a slow, oblique walk is likely thinking that the item of interest is an unknown quantity. Could it be a threat or a danger? The crow doesn’t know. Like a person walking out on a frozen lake, the bird keeps its center of balance just back from the subject that compels it to move forward. Doing so allows for a quicker getaway should the subject prove dangerous.

I recently observed a good example of this behavior when I watched a single crow that had found something that looked edible. It walked confidently over, intent on determining its worthiness as a meal. It was a small garter snake–-something that initially appeared to be a giant worm to a hungry crow. The snake had no intention of being a meal and coiled and struck out at the inquisitive crow. Then the bird took on a different posture, leaning back a few degrees from the object of its interest and, rather than approaching directly, it moved from side to side obliquely. The hungry crow’s memory has no record of this prey, other than it is alive and looks like a worm. The prey’s response doesn’t coincide with what the crow remembers of the passive worm. The crow becomes cautious, but doesn’t abandon the field, rather, it tries another strategy and works around the snake, seeking to grab its tail. 

Hop to the Prize (Providing Adult)

Again, the young crow solicits a meal from an adult whose memory of a sharing with a hungry fledgling is tweaked. 

Poised Alert with Patience Required

Another crow in the parking lot spots a wrapper that it has earlier learned often encloses a portion of food. The crow walks obliquely towards the wrapper because, in this case, an unknown human patron of the deli is seated outside the fast food shop and too close a position is threatening to the crow. A perfectly good food source, but unknowns could have serious consequences. The bird flies to a roof above the patron and waits until he moves on to descend and investigate the wrapper.

A separate crow on the pole or wire above the shopping center may seem indifferent to the activity below, yet it is anything but. Watch it at a distance and you can see it follow the movement of other birds and, in fact, likely assess whether their activity is worth investigating. With eyes and ears they are taking in information continuously and considering their next move-–their lives depend on it.

Should you get out of your car and approach the bird, you will see a ripple of tenseness appear as it considers your intentions. If you’re known to the crow, as we have discovered some people are, they will respond accordingly as they might to a friend or foe.

Tony Angell, Co-Author

The Gifts of the Crow

Tony Angell, author and artist, has written and illustrated more than a dozen books and numerous articles and essays related to natural history. more...

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