Clever crows

Some years ago I was working in my home in Hamburg, when I saw a common crow outside do something truly remarkable

My wife has a desk adjacent to mine, in the first floor of our house in Hamburg, Germany, and we each have a window in front of us. Suddenly Ingrid said: “What is it doing??” I followed her gaze and saw a crow sitting on a very high street light with an acorn in it beak. In a moment of quite uncommon presence of mind I grabbed my camera and started shooting. That evening I posted the following video on YouTube:

Description below the clip: Uploaded on Oct 26, 2009. The crow flies to the top of a very high street light and then throws the acorn down on the road for it to crack open. It obviously does this purposefully and intentionally. Please watch and appreciate how it checks for cars while crossing the road.

This was just another interaction with crows, which have been quite numerous in my life. Most of them were abroad, in tropical countries, but there is another to relate that also occurred here in Hamburg. I have no visuals — we were not carrying a camera — but I have reliable witnesses to attest to the veracity of the following incident.

A year or two after the above had happened Ingrid and I went to see a blockbuster movie. We had to go early to get tickets, and then spend half an hour waiting for entrance. We did this strolling by the beautiful lake, the Alster, that is located in the middle of Hamburg. And there we saw a few hundred dark birds — raven crows — perched on the trees and the ground.

Image for post
We didn’t have a camera with us, but the crows looked very much like this one [image Corvid Research]

It was quite spectacular, and a number of people stood around admiring the scene. Some tried to approach closer, but the crows were shy and immediately distanced themselves. Later I checked: they were migratory birds from Russia.

Well, I noticed that some of the crows on the ground were collecting acorns and burying them in the grass — poking holes in the ground and pushing them in. So I squatted down, some distance from the crows, and started doing the same, poking a hole with my finger and pushing an acorn in. It was clear that they were interested, watching me.

Then I discovered that I could peel acorns quite easily after cracking them between my teeth. So I did this and tossed one towards the nearest birds. They immediately took flight and perched on a nearby tree. And kept watching. I peeled a few more acorns and tossed them in the general direction. After some minutes one of the crows descended and picked up a peeled acorn, which it proceeded to bury in the grass. Then another.

Now I changed my strategy: I would peel an acorn and, clearly visible to the bird, bury it in the grass. Then I would move a short distance away. And soon it happened: the bird “stole” my acorn and buried it in a different place. We did this a couple of times, and I kept decreasing the distance I moved away from the buried nut. Finally I buried one and stayed put. With considerably hesitancy the crow approached, retrieved the nut and re-buried it a few yards away. It became more confident and kept taking them very quickly now.

And then I swear the following happened (and I have the reliable witnesses to confirm it). The crow was digging out a nut right next to me, and I slowly reached out to pet it. It crouched down, flattening itself on the ground, and allowed me to stroke it! A wild crow, one that had flown away if anyone approached within twenty yards.

I have not completely figured out what happened that afternoon. My theory is that the crow watched me perform something it understood and slowly decided that I was a giant, malformed member of its species. When I was stroking it, it pecked away at my hand, which was soon quite bloody. It must have known something was wrong about the situation and was in the turmoil of companionship, fear and flight. What other explanation is there? The bird may have been hand-raised, at some distant location, but it was clearly part of the migratory group which it soon rejoined, so that this explanation becomes quite unlikely. I ask any ornithologist (or ethologist) reading this piece to give me a plausible explanation.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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