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On sight: Crows' hidden hit lists

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The crows are always watching.

No, birds don't work for the bourgeoisie. But that doesn't mean they're not keeping tabs on you.

Research from the UW’s Avian Conservation Laboratory, directed by Dr. John Marzluff, has revealed that crows can remember hostile faces and even communicate this information to peers and younger generations. 

Scientists from the lab wore various masks while performing adverse activities, from capturing and banding crows to standing menacingly in the open while holding a dead crow (producing some pretty creepy visuals). Later, in keeping with their hypothesis, researchers wearing these masks outside would be dive-bombed and “told off” by crows. Sometimes these crows were the individuals affected by banding, but other times they were unrelated adult crows or juvenile offspring who had apparently been warned about the danger of the masked researchers.

If you’ve ever felt personally targeted by the crows on campus, now you know they aren’t just upset by your personal aesthetic. 

“Did you ever do something to them during the breeding season? (pick up a baby, pick up a dead crow, harass a crow, etc.),” Dr. Kaeli Swift, a behavioral ecologist in the UW’s Avian Conservation Lab, said in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” to a questioner concerned about crow attacks. “Do you walk closer to their nest or to the babies than other people? If the answer to both of these is ‘no’ then you might look like someone who did. Bad luck, friend.”

These attacks aren’t vindictive — they show crows using their considerable intelligence to ensure the safety of an entire flock. If they know who to look out for, they can keep themselves and their offspring away from them. Crows also aren’t discriminating against people based on appearance, as evidenced by the fact that they were not threatened by a researcher in a Dick Cheney mask who didn’t harass the crows.

Fortunately, making an enemy out of a crow doesn’t have to mean that you’re stuck on the avian hit list forever. I asked Loma Pendergraft, another researcher in the Avian Conservation Lab, about getting out of a crow’s bad books, and he responded via email. As with so many problems in life, the best solution to a crow vendetta is food.

“If you have the misfortune of ending up on a crow’s bad side … you can try to

change that crow’s association of you by feeding it regularly,” Pendergraft said. “I prefer unsalted peanuts in shell —  you can carry a few of them in your pocket and toss one or two on the ground whenever you see the offended crow. After a while, the crow will ‘forget’ the thing you did to upset it, although the amount of time required will vary depending on how badly and how long ago you upset it.”

Pendergraft also explained that this visual recall ability helps crows maximize their foraging potential since they can learn to follow around people who do feed them. Allies to the crow community, if you will. This is good news for students returning to campus this fall: Play your cards right, and you could end up a Snow White–style leader of a legion of faithful crows.

However, if you’re pretty neutral about crows (and have never been attacked by them), you probably have no reason to worry that they’re familiar with your face. Like humans, crows tend to remember only those faces that stand out, Pendergraft assured me. As an analogy: I often walk in Capitol Hill. One time, I saw a mime giddily skipping at full speed (vastly outstripping my walking pace) toward Broadway. To this day, I remember that mime, but I don’t remember any other face I’ve seen on those sidewalks.

If you’ve never distinguished yourself as a threat to crow babies, a potential source of food for crows, or an over-caffeinated mime, then you can likely keep flying under the radar in the cozy anonymity of the UW campus.

Whatever your relationship to these birds is, though, the study is a fascinating reminder that we live in pretty intimate connection with the wildlife among us — something that’s easy to forget in the bustle of the city.

“Don’t be dismissive of wildlife; they often pay more attention to us than we do to them,” Pendergraft said. “The crows that live in your neighborhood probably know what day the trash truck arrives, which houses have dogs/cats, and which neighbors like and don’t like them.”

Underneath their swagger, crows and other familiar urban birds seem to be hosting much more intelligence than people might assume. They can hold funerals (of a sort), they can recognize each other and communicate complexly, and they can play for play’s sake.

“I [once] saw a young crow grab a pigeon by the tail, and once the pigeon was airborne trying to get away, the crow turned in circles with it like it was a lasso,” Swift recalled in her Reddit AMA. “The circles were slow, the pigeon was just fine after it [let] go.”

Researchers hope that studies like this will encourage the general public to get curious about the animals around them and appreciate their potential for deep intelligence and emotion — in addition to mischief-making with pigeons.

“Scientists used to think that birds were incapable of higher-order cognitive thought, but

the more we study them, the more we realize just how wrong we were,” Pendergraft said. “There’s a lot of evidence that many corvids have some degree of theory of mind, meaning they have a rudimentary understand[ing] that other creatures experience the world differently than they do.”

For more information on crows and other corvids, check out this recommended reading list compiled by Swift.

Reach writer Mac Murray at Twitter: @merqto

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