Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Crows Make Up After Fighting, Then Seek Consolation

A new study shows crows reconcile and seek third parties after things get nasty

Crows are highly intelligent and emotional birds who form long-lasting relationships with other members of their group. For essays on the cognitive and emotional lives of crows and other corvids please see Avian Einsteins by crow experts and Psychology Today writers John Marzluff and Tony Angell, their book called Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, and click here.

A recent essay in New Scientist titled "After crows fight they touch and preen each other to make up" caught my eye because of my own interests in how nonhuman animals (animals) behave and make up after conflicts. Most of this piece is available online and the print edition is called "Crows make up after food fights." This brief summary focuses on a study published in the journal Ethology by Miriam Jennifer Sima and her colleagues titled "Reconciliation and third-party affiliation in carrion crows" that is available online.

To conduct their novel study of post-conflict behavior, the researchers focused on 12 hand-raised juvenile hybrid crows (five males and seven females from six different nests). They carefully observed the birds while they conducted a series of food experiments as follows: "One food piece attached to one board, or the same amount of food split into two food pieces and attached to two boards. By introducing these two different feeding conditions, we manipulated the degree of food monopolisation and choice, respectively. We assumed that competing over one or two pieces of food would pose different challenges to the crows. In the one-piece condition, crows would have a lower chance to choose a feeding position and their nearest neighbour, and thus could not easily avoid conflicts with affiliates. Contrarily, in the two-piece condition, individuals would have a higher ability to choose where and with whom to feed and could thus better avoid conflicts with affiliates." It's important to pay attention to the details of how this study was conducted in order to discern what the crows were doing after conflicts with others.

Crows engage in both third-party affiliation and reconciliation

The results of this novel study are very interesting. The researchers write, "The present study provides the first evidence that crows similar to ravens (Fraser & Bugnyar, 2010a, 2011)—but contrary to many other corvid species (jackdaws, jays and rooks; Seed et al., 2007; Logan, Emery et al., 2013; Logan, Ostojić et al., 2013)—engage in third-party affiliation and reconciliation."

What's important about the results of this study is that juvenile crows display both patterns of post-conflict behavior depending on the intensity of aggression. The plasticity of behavior was manifested as follows -- after mild fights aggressors preened victims' feathers and after serious fights victims sought consolation from others with whom they didn't fight. As the researchers write, we offer "the first evidence that a corvid species, crows, flexibly engage in both third-party affiliation and reconciliation."

Please stay tuned for further discussion of the fascinating cognitive and emotional lives of crows and other animals. There's still so much to learn about what other animals are thinking and feeling as they interact in all sorts of ways with one another, and comparative ethological research is needed to add to the ever-growing database.