Corvids: The Birds Who Think Like Humans

Corvids: The Birds Who Think Like Humans.
Annalee Newitz

Someday I will come up with a good reason why I am friends with the neighborhood crows. For now, I can say that it started when I looked up from my office window to see this big flock of crows hanging out on the roof of an apartment building nearby. I had heard that these creatures, part of a larger family of birds called corvids, were among the smartest animals in the world. If they were that intelligent, I wanted to meet them. How could I get those awesome animals to come visit me? I decided to find out.

Six months later, I have made friends with about seven crows and two small, brightly-colored corvids called scrub jays — one of whom eats out of my hand. Like many scientists who study these animals, I’ve become convinced that these creatures are not only smart, but also have a theory of mind.

When I started trying to make friends with the crows, I didn’t know much about these birds other than what I’d read in popular accounts. I thought they liked shiny things (which turns out not to be true), and I’d heard Cornell ornithologist Kevin McGowan say on NPR that they liked peanuts. So I took a big piece of shiny tin foil and wrapped it around the wooden railings on my balcony, stashing some peanuts underneath it. Whenever I saw the crows, I would whistle and wave and stand next to the foil. Yes, I’m sure I looked like an idiot, but apparently they noticed.

One morning while I was in bed, I heard a bunch of thunks and the sound of ruffling feathers. When I came out to the balcony, I could see that the crows had ripped open the foil and taken the peanuts. I continued with this routine for a while, and eventually they would come to get their peanuts when I was working. I’d watch them advance slowly down the railing, one eye on me, then snatch the peanut. Every day, a group of three would come to eat — two seemed to be a mated pair, and the third I nicknamed Whitey because he had a big white patch on one wing. He seemed to be quite old and feeble, and had a hard time landing and taking off. I left a lot of peanuts out for Whitey on a lower railing where it was easier for him to land. He and his two flock friends would pick up the peanuts in their beaks, then fly into the tree where they would hold the peanut against a branch with one claw and peck it open for the nuts inside.