Ravens Might be Smarter than You

(The Crow and the Pitcher, illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919)

(The Crow and the Pitcher, illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919)

Daniel Doherty, Writer

Ravens, crows, rooks, jays, and jackdaws are all of the corvids species. With black feathers, ebony eyes, and a beak capable of tearing open animal flesh, people tend to be afraid of ravens and crows. This may have something to do with their unbelievable brains and fondness for decayed corpses. 

Ravens have a similar amount of neurons as some species of monkeys. They also have a level of consciousness that only humans and some monkeys possess. Their amazing mental prowess allows them to create their own tools, combine multiple tools, and even crack stubborn nuts by putting them under the tires of cars at a red light.

The extraordinary intelligence these birds possess has been noted all the way back to 600BC. Aesop, a famous Greek storyteller, wrote about a thirsty crow that finds a pitcher half full of water. The water is past the range of its beak. After being unable to push it over, the bird drops in stones one at a time until the water level rises, allowing it to drink. 

Aesop’s fable “The Crow and the Pitcher” has been proved true in a unique experiment. Two zoologists placed a narrow cylinder with a worm floating on water inside in a cage with captive rooks, close relatives of crows. The rooks used small pebbles to raise the water level so they could eat the worm. They also gravitated toward larger rocks that would displace more water and get the worm to them faster.

To add to their inherent creepiness, these birds hold funerals for their dead. According to  Kaeli Swift, a Ph.D. student in environmental science at the University of Washington, calling out to each other, as well as congregating near and paying extra attention to a recently killed bird is common among corvids.

However, this likely doesn’t mean they’re mourning for their lost brother. It’s thought that crows do this to figure out where any threats are nearby so they don’t also get killed. 

Crows, accompanied by their ability to use tools, solve problems, and hold funeral rituals, can recognize human faces. John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist and specialist on crow behavior at the University of Washington in Seattle, discovered crows and humans share the ability to recognize faces and relate the faces with certain feelings.

Ravens will also hold a grudge against you if you did something bad to them. It hasn’t been tested, but it is believed that they can hold a grudge for up to a year or two.

There is one thing about crow behavior that puzzles Marzluff. Some crows will bring gifts, normally small earrings or lost coins, to humans with whom they have become friends. It is not fully understood why they do this.

So, next time you see any bird from the corvids species, know that they are highly intelligent and will remember you. If you mess with them, they will hold a grudge against you. However, if you are kind to them and help them, they will be your friend and bring you gifts.