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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.