Of Minds and Crows


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A fellow blogger and I had a little debate  about consciousness and awareness in non-human organisms. His view seems to be that humans are largely unique in their capabilities for awareness. My view is that humans clearly have unique talents and abilities, but those capabilities do not intrinsically provide us with greater consciousness or self-awareness. In other words, other organisms, take the crow for example, might be as conscious and self-aware as we are even they are not as intelligent as we are. This post is not so much about the debate on self-awareness as it is about crows.

As I am writing this, I can hear in my backyard a group of crows. After a little chatter, they begin to make the characteristic commotion I usually hear when a cat is making its way through the backyard. By the time I get to the window to check, however, the noise has quieted down and four crows are around a plate of dried cat food. I had put out the plate of cat food and some stale crackers earlier. The crows had been coming and going through the morning first hauling away the stale crackers to dip them in the bird baths. Some crows seem to gravitate more to the bread and crackers, others to the dried cat food. They usually eat in groups. The first crow to spot food will typically call others to join. I think this is partly altruism and partly a safety consideration. Eating in a group while on the ground provides a safety in numbers. More eyes, more ears to see and hear predators. Not uncommonly one of more crows will remain on a perch to be an additional lookout. A sudden noise such as opening the backdoor will make them retreat to the trees. Eventually for reasons of their own the crows of this morning depart with some food remaining.

I have been feeding and watching crows for a few years.

My recent interest in crows goes back to a PBS Nature documentary “A Murder of Crows”. The documentary particularly focuses on the ability of crows to recognize individual faces of humans and associate them with good or bad. Apparently this recognition can be taught to other crows and even transmitted from one generation to another. The documentary is based on the work of John Marzluff who has written several books on crows and ravens. Kat McGowan has an excellent article at the Audubon Society website on his work that I recommend for a great overview of capabilities of crows. Many of accounts I talk about here are from his book Gifts of the Crow.

I became hooked when a group of three crows that I fed sporadically through one Winter showed up one day in the Spring with a baby crow. Although the baby was not by any means small, it could not feed itself. It anxiously flapped its wings and pleaded to the adult crows to feed it. They accommodated for a time then eventually let the young crow figure it for itself. Eventually more crows appeared in the group. I am not sure whether they were related or guests, but the group now fluctuates between four and seven. That is, assuming they are the same crows. Crows are territorial, but apparently even experts cannot distinguish individual crows with any consistency and the groups do change with additions and departures.

Crows are a member of the Corvid family that includes ravens, magpies, and jays. Crows and members of the family are among the most intelligent of animals. Some have compared their abilities to those of apes. Experts rate the intelligence of crows as equivalent to a seven-year-old child.

They have complex social lives that involves maintaining relationships over many years. When you see a group of crows, mostly likely they are related. In cases, siblings from one generation will continue to live with their parents and help care of siblings of the next generation. There is a story from researchers monitoring groups of crows over many years of a female group leaving her family to live in another group many miles away. After several years, the female returned to her family and was accepted back into it.

Magpies have been known to fashion tools and perform a complex sequence of steps in the correct order to obtain food. Western scrub jays observe who is watching them caching food and alter their behavior according to the risk of the cache being stolen. Some believe this may mean the birds understand that other birds have a mind, in essence they have the ability to put themselves in the mind of the other bird. Corvids have excellent memory. They can remember hundreds of places they have stored food and can proactively move food from location to location to prevent its theft. As shown in the documentary they can remember faces of those who have harmed them and engage in mobbing behavior at the appearance of that person. Mobbing involves a group of crows cawing raucously at a predator. With predator birds, it can involve the crows darting at the predator, harassing it, and eventually driving it from its perch. Frequently I see a hawks flying across the sky pursued by a group of persistent crows.

The often observed gathering of crows near a dead or dying crow has been called a crow “funeral”. Most investigators do not interpret this as mourning or any special understanding of death. The general interpretation is that the crows are examining the situation and circumstances of the dead crow to learn about potential dangers and threats in the area. However, some of the stories reported in The Language of the Crow by Michael Westerfield makes us doubt that simple explanation holds in all cases. There is an account on Prince Edward Island of someone picking up an electrocuted crow while twelve crows were upset and circling. The person took the dead crow home in a plastic bag and set it out under a tree. The circling crows followed the person home and took turns quietly observing the dead crow into the next day.

Crows have a wide variety of vocalizations, more than just the typical caw that most people associate with crows. Westerfield in his book identifies nine general classes of calls: contact and localization calls. scolding (alert) calls, mobbing calls, feeding calls, backup needed calls, duets, rattle vocalizations, coos, and roost vocalizations. These, however, are just general types, and while some may be common to crows everywhere, there are regional variations. Crows can also imitate other birds and even humans.

We have accounts of groups of crows herding birds into traffic and feasting on the resulting slaughter, dropping clams in the road in front of a ferry and eating the shelled seafood after the cars pass, and pulling the tail of a dog to distract it from its food then taking the meal. A pet magpie consoled a weeping owner by flying to her lap, nuzzling her, and calling to her softly. Ravens stole two pies in pans and returned the pans the next day. Stories of reciprocity between crows and ravens and humans are well-known. They will often bring gifts, usually colorful or shiny metal objects, to those who feed them. (I am still waiting.)

Corvids can be playful. They can spend many hours wind-surfing on updrafts. A pet crow has been known pulled a string in front of a cat to play with it. They can play tug-of-war between themselves with a stick. A raven pestered a wild turkey behind a wired fence. Every time the turkey tried to poke its way through the fence, the raven would jump to the other side and pull the turkey’s tail.

A while after the young crow arrived a hawk began to frequent my backyard. I believed the hawk to be the small sharp-shinned hawk and I regarded it as a threat to the crows. I expected to see the mobbing behavior but oddly that didn’t happen. There were loud growls or complaints (that’s the best I can describe it) from the crows but none of the coordinated ruckus and attacking that one usually sees in reaction to larger hawks. The hawk acted like a threat. It would fly at fast pace directly toward one of the crows and the crow would either fly off with the hawk in pursuit or stand its ground and battle with the hawk side by side on the branch. I couldn’t tell if the crow that interested the hawk was the young crow, since the baby was now grown, but I feared it might be. This went on for several days. Eventually I think the crows drove the hawk away. But why did they let this go on? Did the adult crows use this as a learning opportunity for the young crow? Was this really play between a young hawk learning to hunt and a young crow learning to defend itself? I’ll never know.

John Marzluff and Tony Angell write in the Gifts of the Crow:

For centuries many philosophers and scientists have believed that other animals are incapable of conscious thought and emotion. But as we learn more about how information travels through the brain of other mammals and birds, and how similar this trip is to the way our own brains work, we can no longer perpetuate this self-serving idea. Consciousness appears to depend on an integrative forebrain and especially on its reciprocal connection to the thalamus. The connected loops of neurons that originate in the brain stem, pass through the thalamus, and course up to the forebrain before checking in again with the thalamus or commanding muscles are important neural basis of consciousness. Animals with loops between the thalamus and forebrain have expectations – in other words, they are able to consciously think. Birds and mammals have these loops. Reptile loops are minimal. Loops are unknown in amphibians.

The evolutionary path birds took to reach this point diverged from the path of mammals about 300 million years ago with a common ancestor believed to be a reptile. Reptiles, birds, and mammals both share a brainstem that is very old in evolutionary terms and provides for control of the body and integration of external stimuli. This part of the brain plays a central role in alertness and sleep in mammals and birds (reptiles are not believed to sleep). Damage to a small number of cells in this part of the brain will make an organism unconscious. Birds and mammals have integrated this brainstem with different brain structures to create the repertoire of cognitive skills and capabilities we share. In mammals, the cerebral cortex or neocortex performs complex mental tasks. This is done by a structure called the pallium in birds.

While these structures are different apparently the internal wiring in them is similar.
To quote from an article on recent research:

Single modules of the brains, for example, are wired in a similar way, and both animal groups have a prefrontal brain structure that controls similar executive functions. It is not known how these similarities have evolved. Either their last common ancestor passed the neuronal basis to birds and mammals. Or – and the authors consider this more likely – they evolved independently of each other, because both animal groups faced the same challenges. According to the researchers, this would mean that certain wiring patterns in the brain are necessary to boost cognitive performance.

These capabilities are not dependent on absolute brain weight. While apes and corvids may have roughly similar cognitive abilities, the ape brain weighs 275 to 500 gram while birds have only 5 to 20 grams. Apparently complex thinking and problem solving can be done with a very little brain material since even a good percentage of the bird brain must be occupied with body mapping and control functions.

Corvids are not alone in possessing advanced cognitive skills among birds. Parrots are perhaps equally or more intelligent. Other than apes among mammals we have dolphins, whales, hyenas, squirrels, pigs, and elephants at the high-end of abilities.

Where does this leave humans in the scheme of things? I am not sure it means we are more conscious or self-aware.

When we began to walk upright we freed our hands. With freed hands we began to make tools. For tool making to persist across generations it would have to be taught. The way it would be taught would be by another watching someone else who was already skilled in making tools. This would require watching the hands and imitating their motions. It would be a very small step from that to using the hands to signal other things and over time we would develop a sign language capability. Sign language uses the same part of the brain as spoken language. If we add to that some rudimentary control of sounds – whistles, clicks, grunts – that might combine with gestures and hand motions, particularly for drawing attention when another’s gaze was averted or out of sight, we have selection pressure for the anatomical modifications that allowed full speech about 100,000 years ago. Complex language and the production of persistent artifacts external to ourselves (tools) is what makes us unique.

Perhaps we are not so much more conscious or self-aware than these other species but rather we have wrapped ourselves in an envelope of human symbols that makes us think we are. In some ways, we may be more handicapped in the grand scheme of things.

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13 Responses to Of Minds and Crows

  1. Rick Searle says:

    I am currently reading Sy Montgomery’s book “The Soul of an Octopus”. What’s blowing my mind is how a creature with such a radically different neural architecture and social life, from us, other mammals or even other social animals such as corvids can show signs of intelligence e.g. recognize individuals, solve puzzles, use simple tools etc. It seems the more we open our eyes to the fact that intelligence exists beyond us, the more we can see it in other animals even those very different from us.

    • James Cross says:

      Yeah, I thought about the octopus when I was writing this. It probably is a very different branch on the evolutionary tree that split earlier than birds and mammals.It will be interesting to understand more about how its architecture works.

      I thought about making some comments on this in this post.


      I thought for a while that the octopus was a good counter argument to my argument that the greater intelligence and awareness were associated with social organisms but apparently it is another argument for it. Also, interesting is the complex communication that takes place with skin color changes in the octopus.

      So in these lines of life we see the commonalities of social organization and communication.

    • James Cross says:

      One other thought. It makes sense that communication and being social go together since communication is required for complex social behavior. What is not so apparent is why this would also endow these organisms with greater problem solving and planning abilities. Perhaps problem solving and planning in social situations carries over into problem solving and planning in non-social ones.

      It seems there might be something profound about this observation but probably not.

      • Rick Searle says:

        It certainly is a mystery. Perhaps social modeling requires greater intelligence which can then be applied to problem solving. Though it’s a chicken and egg problem, isn’t it? My understanding with the cephalapods is that some species are social and some are more individualistic. It’d be interesting to see that in their case high intelligence resulted in the emergence of social behavior rather than the reverse, which was clearly the case with humans.

        I will say that the cephalpods are about as different from our form of intelligence as we’ll see until we discover aliens or invent true AI.

  2. Wes Hansen says:

    When I read the intro to your post I immediately thought of the dolphin Billie who taught herself to tail-walk and then seemed to teach others as well: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1322843/Wild-dolphins-exactly-tricks-captive-cousins.html. The reason I thought of it was because it is believed that the dolphins do this purely for amusement, which would seem an indicator of some sort of consciousness. When I searched for the above article I found this one as well, which you might appreciate: http://www.earthintransition.org/2011/09/dolphins-teach-each-other-new-trick/.

    Better than twenty years ago, I read a book by Robert Anton Wilson in which he expounded upon a set of experiments involving plants in which the researcher supposedly demonstrated the existence of emotion in plants. Considering that it was Wilson I took it with a grain of salt and, of course, there were no references. In 2005 – 2006 I met an electrical engineer from Dallas, Texas, named Fred. Fred was originally from New York State but was working in the telecom industry which is huge in Dallas. Anyway, Fred and I engaged in some rather interesting and often speculative conversations and during one such I brought up this plant experiment. Fred became rather animated and told me that he had worked on that experiment as an undergrad!

    Apparently Fred had attended junior college receiving an Associates in electronic technology and then transferred to a bachelor program and used his Associates to work his way through. One of the jobs he worked was this experiment; he built all of the Faraday cages used to protect the sensitive instruments used to monitor the plants bio-rhythms. I can’t remember the college Fred attended and I cannot seem to find any documentation on this experiment; however, my “random” encounter with Fred convinces ME that there is some truth to it.

    Fred told me that the experiment was funded by and at the request of DARPA. The military was interested in exploring whether plants could sense the presence of other biological organisms such as humans; they wanted to see about using them (plants) as advanced sentries around sensitive installations such as missile silos. Anyway, the researcher discovered that plants would indeed alter their bio-rhythms in the presence of other organisms and he found that the yucca was the most sensitive plant. The interesting aspect of the experiment, from my perspective, came when the researcher subjected the yuccas to stress by withholding water for an extended period. After all of the yuccas in the experiment demonstrated, via their bio-rhythms, that they were under stress, the researcher watered some but not others. Curiously, the ones that had been watered continued to exhibit stress in their rhythms and continued to do so until all of the other yuccas had been watered as well. The researcher (and Fred) was convinced that the plants which had received water were aware that the others had not and he interpreted their continued exhibition of stress as an emotional display! So maybe RAW wasn’t so out there after all . . .

    • James Cross says:

      Thanks for commenting, Wes.

      It seems to me that all of life relies extensively on signalling and communication. This applies to one celled organisms and plants. When the first bilaterians evolved this signalling and communication extended itself into a neural system.I am inclined to think that signalling by itself (which is probably what the yuccas were doing) is not sufficient for consciousness but that a more complex neural system is required.

      However, I reserve the right to change my mind about that. 🙂

  3. jjhiii24 says:


    Enjoyed reading through this posting and have been pondering a response. I appreciate your link to our conversation on John’s Consciousness, and wanted to respond briefly.

    In a recent article on Scienceline.org by Chelsey B. Coombs, she reported the following:

    “Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux argues that the neural circuitry associated with fear conditioning, which he argues is a response to a threat, is separate entirely from any circuitry that could create conscious fear. LeDoux says that in a variety of experiments in humans, subliminal threats were able to cause physiological responses, such as increased skin conductance caused by sweat, without subjects being aware of the threat, even when they are asked to describe how they are feeling at that moment. We can trigger these kinds of states that if you measured in an animal, you would say the animal is feeling fear,” LeDoux said. “But if we can’t use that information to conclusively demonstrate that a human is feeling fear or experiencing that state, then we certainly can’t use it every time an animal looks like he may be feeling afraid.”

    “In summary, I don’t think we are able to prove that animals are conscious any more than we are able to prove that another human is.”

    David Chalmers, the philosopher of consciousness from New York University expressed his view this way….”There is this beautiful scientific picture…the great chain of explanation…physics explains chemistry, and chemistry explains biology, and biology at least explains aspects of psychology, aspects of sociology, and so on, but although there is a whole lot there that we haven’t worked out, we at least have a sense of the picture and how the pieces fit together, and what’s interesting about consciousness, is that it just doesn’t seem to fit easily into that picture at all…because this is a picture of the world in terms of objective mechanisms described from the objective point of view…and consciousness is the quintessentially subjective phenomenon. It’s how things feel from the inside, it’s how we experience the world from a subjective point of view, and nothing in this objective picture of the world seems, on the face of it, to tell you why there’s going to be subjectivity.”

    When we see other creatures exhibiting behaviors that we recognize as something we would do, we tend to want to say, “Oh, they are like us.” We want very much to attribute awareness and consciousness to those creatures, because that is also what we do when we observe each other.

    Watching a video of a panel of experts recently, there was a scientist studying animal cognition on the panel, who brought up a recent commercial broadcast by Ikea, which features a CGI scenario of an old lamp being tossed out in the trash, and the lamp looks sad, and is hunched over and demonstrating lament for being replaced, and the punch line of the commercial is, “It’s only a lamp, it doesn’t have feelings, buy a new one!” Our tendency to empathize with even an inanimate object displaying emotional behaviors points toward our willingness, and in some instances, calls into question our compelling urge to attribute some kind of subjective equivalent experience in birds and other mammals. This is not to say that there is no equivalent experience taking place, only that we aren’t even able always to distinguish between people who are fully and functionally conscious and people who are cognitively impaired in some way.

    There is so much work that still needs to be done, and we understand so little about our own subjective experience, that to insist that other creatures share equally in that experience begs the question, “Can we really know enough about this to declare it unequivocally?”

  4. James Cross says:

    “In summary, I don’t think we are able to prove that animals are conscious any more than we are able to prove that another human is.”

    If you go down that route, then maybe nobody but you is conscious. Or nobody but me.

    Of course, we can’t know for sure what organisms are conscious or not, but mammals other than humans and birds have similarities in brain construction and neurotransmitters to those of humans.They show behavior that involves planning and awareness that other organisms are conscious like humans. They have a flexibility and on the spot decision-making in their behavior which can’t be explained by instinct alone, Without this flexibility organisms wouldn’t be able to adapt to new circumstances until a new instinct had gotten encoded into the their DNA.

    So all in all I would say at least some mammals and birds are as likely to be conscious as are humans. Either that or we are not conscious which is an option I think Francis Crick explored in The Astonishing Hypothesis or that George Gurdjieff implied by saying we were all basically machines (although he did think his Way was a solution to overcome it).

  5. jjhiii24 says:

    My only disagreement with your response is your suggestion that because of our observations of comparable animal behaviors and by examining neurological metrics that are similar to those which take place in human brains, that we can conclude “at least some mammals and birds are as likely to be conscious as are humans.” The behaviors which you suggest demonstrate an “awareness that other organisms are conscious like humans,” is impossible to prove empirically and seems rather to impose a degree and quality of human characteristics on those non-human species that is simply not supported by the data. Flexibility is an adaptive behavior, but it is demonstrated among many species with less cognitive talent and is not strictly speaking a sign of “human-like awareness.”

    We certainly can speculate about what this kind of flexibility suggests, but there is no way to determine definitively, what degree of awareness even the closest relatives in the large-brained mammals might possess, and as remarkable as the adaptive behaviors of many species of birds appear, even without some of the key components of the hominid brain, the argument in favor of the idea that “at least some mammals and birds are as likely to be conscious as are humans,” is simply not supported by the data. It seems to me much more likely that these suggestions amount to us imposing these characteristics on the non-human species, rather than determining with any certainty what sort and degree of awareness is taking place.

    None of the examples you cite, in my view, qualify any other species with possessing the complete and comprehensive broad range of human cognitive capacities, and none exemplify the much more advanced and demonstrably broader indications of awareness in humans, in both quality and degree of innovation, imagination, intuition, intellectual creativity, sophisticated use of grammatical languages, the ability to project ourselves into the future, reflect on the past, and to express and utilize our unique ability for self-reflection. It’s mostly a small difference in brain architecture for our closest primate species, and with the intervention of humans in our research endeavors, we have been able to show remarkable progress with them, which would very likely not be possible without our intervention. Similar is not the same, and many of the similarities we observe are only under very specific conditions, and limited in scope, although still amazing and worthy of our respect.

    Thanks for allowing me to share in this discussion and I look forward to doing further research and exploring the subject further as time progresses…..John H.

    • James Cross says:

      I never really said other species have the same cognitive abilities as humans. I only said they were as conscious as humans. A big difference.

      Of course, birds or apes are never going to write poetry or opine on the fate of the universe but whether they self-reflect or project themselves into the future might be open to debate and there certainly is no reason to reject it out of hand.

      The most cogent argument for other species having minds is albeit somewhat circumstantial but it is that they exhibit behaviors that says they think other organisms have minds. They will hide food and observe whether others are watching. They will engage in tactical deception.


  6. 2stupidcats says:

    Great article, watched the same documentary..see quite an interesting discussion has developed. Enjoyed the read very much

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