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A girl who gets gifts from birds (bbc.com)
506 points by th0br0 on Feb 26, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 136 comments

When I was quite young I lived in a low-end apartment complex, not quite "the projects" but home to lots of new immigrants working multiple jobs, lots of latchkey kids, that sort of thing.

From time to time birds would fly into the building and those that survived usually needed some place to recuperate a bit. I became well known in the neighborhood as "the bird boy" for my seemingly miraculous ability to nurse stunned birds back to health...several of the other kids in the neighborhood tried it as well, but they ended up killing all their birds.

For a while I had a pet robin, too young to fly. He had fallen from his nest and was abandoned after that. I took him in and fed and raised him till eventually turning him over to a local animal sanctuary. While I had him, for all that time, I had a friend on my shoulder or head pretty much wherever I went. He knew who my family was and who my friends were, and would stay away from people he didn't know. He knew where I kept his food and the process I had to go through the make it ready for him to eat.

I don't recall ever being pooped on by him, not even once. He'd hold it till I put him in his house, or up on a branch while out playing with my friends. He never bit me, or did anything aggressive towards me. But he'd misbehave with other people he didn't know.

One day, in a well meaning attempt to set him free, my mother dropped me off from school and then dropped my bird off in the woods. I came home and couldn't find him, my mother lied and said that he had flown away (which I knew was patently false). Finally, out of guilt, my mother fessed up and I ran out to the woods where she had dropped him off.

He had waited patiently all day for me and vigorously hopped towards me when he saw me coming, chirping his head off in angry protest. He was shivering and starving and getting him back home, warm and fed was the guiltiest I ever felt.

Not a crow, but definitely a cool experience with wild birds.

I had a pet crow when I was about 6 years old - he was a fledgeling who'd left his nest on the hottest day of the year and was dehydrated. My brother and I were squirting eachother with water and he cawed at us until we squirted him. He decided this was the best thing ever, and basically adopted us from then onwards.

He was the terror of the local cats and dogs, but left our two siamese alone because he knew they were part of the family. He'd regularly steal visitor's keys, and hide them in the bush alongside our house purely so he could watch my dad or mum have to hunt for them. He'd play in the sprinkler, and knew the sound of my dad's motorcycle - when he heard my dad coming home in the evenings he would fly down the street and perch on my dad's shoulder for the ride home.

Crows are awesome.

Similar story, ~10 years ago a friend's dad (a hunter) found this crow alone and starving (he was probably 1 month old). He gave it to me. I feed him for 1/2 months and instead to leave him in a cage I decided to let him living outside... free.

He was super smart, he was able to recognize me he was playful but the thing that most surprised me was that he was really lovable he really liked to be petted and every time I was on my way home from school he would fly down on my shoulder and start to rub my cheeks happy to see me like a dog would.

Like a dog every time I called him within a minute or so he would fly down on my shoulder or arm everywhere from my small town. It was a powerful sensation!

One day that didn't happen. Indeed I was deeply sad. I thought he died ceasing cats or rats.

Around a month later I was driving home while from the windows of my car I started to see several crows flying very close to my car.

I stopped the car when suddenly something like 15/20 crows landed in front of me.

I'm not good in recognize crows especially at night but I suspect my crow found his crew and wanted to let me know he was fine. Maybe a proper goodbye?

I went home with a huge smile, I was a lover of birds, I had several of them, within years I totally stopped to buy them because I think a bird should be free to fly.

Crows are awesome.

Agreed, crows are super awesome.

I've always heard that crows are incredibly smart. Great story. :)

Crows are incredibly smart.

They are known to memorize curbside garbage pick up routes of city vehicles and the specific days for each neighborhood, within a city. They are also quick to adapt, given a change in schedule and only visit those specific neighborhoods only on those specific days, from miles away.

Here's a video of crow performing a multi-step tool action test - a test of intelligence - for the first time, without guidance and solving it in the first attempt.

[1] Crow Intelligence - Multi-Step Tool Action Test


This one's my favourite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUiGEDnf5e4

Crow keeps undoing the guys shoe laces so he can steal the frying pan while the guy's doing his shoe laces up. Classic.

To be fair, that's pretty basic reinforcement learning. The other video, on the other hand, shows adaptation of existing knowledge to solve a problem, along with multi-step planning, which is really incredible!

That may be true, but the more advanced one isn't nearly as funny :P

Only if the crow had significant experience with untying shoes as an opportunity to swipe something interesting... bit of a long shot, no?

You're over thinking it.

On its own shoelaces are interesting. Pulling on the loose end may have started as curiosity.

The person then puts the pan down to tie them. Crow grabs the lace again because, again, curious and playful (birds can be incredibly mischievous), and once again the pan reappears!

Now we're in reinforcement territory.

Now don't get me wrong, the crow learns fast. But it still could be just basic reinforcement of a natural behavior, which is the same technique used to teach various animals "tricks".

It makes me want to tame a crow because it's animals with these kinds of personalities I love. They make life fun.

It's important to recognize that this crow would have been exposed to these types of problems before, so each problem element is likely familiar.

But, the act of synthesizing that knowledge, applying that knowledge to a new problem, formulating a plan, and executing it... that really is incredible!

Great story, indeed.

There's an old 4Chan thread where a user starts 'World War Crow' by favoring a certain group of crows over another.

Allegedly, after some time, the two groups of crows have an all out battle over which group gets french fries.


Maybe some group of aliens distributed oil and other valuable minerals unevenly across the Earth, and now they're watching and laughing and running betting pools.

Yeah, you have to be careful to share the goods evenly among corvids. If you favor one individual, it can be exiled, or even attacked and killed by the others. A crow that is good at getting your attention rises in status if you make sure that there is enough to go around for the group.

True or not, this story is amazing.

What!? That's not the end though. There was a second part where the crow factions fight.

I hope someone saved it!

Crows are real smart. On an episode of Roderick on the Line, John Roderick recalled a story he read where a researcher was trying to round up crows for tests. He went into a parking lot and tossed a net, capturing some. The next day, he went to a different parking lot across town and the crows immediately flew away when he pulled in, because they recognized him. He went back to the same second parking lot in a different vehicle and was able to capture some, but then that vehicle didn't work. He started wearing masks and trying all sorts of tricks, but as far as he could tell, the crows were communicating through town.

Regularly, I'd walk in a park near my workplace to work out problems and I began too often to play games and tricks with the magpies (another type of Corvid like the crow). I'd do things like throwing twigs on either side of them to see how they would react (no magpies ever injured!). After a while I'm certain the magpies had a particular warning call any one would call out when I arrived in the park that would set them all of making that cawking sound until I left. After a while I needed to avoid the park for a bit and I think I was forgiven when I slowly started integrating myself in by leaving bits of food like nuts.

I was amazed too at how observant they were, keeping a different distance if they noticed I had am umbrella or something in my hand or if I was walking funny.

The magpie is the only bird to pass the mirror test: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurasian_magpie#Intelligence

There already exists an automated exploit for this behavior:

Joshua Klein's Crow Machine: https://www.josh.is/crow-machine/

see also: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=470840

I stopped being mesmerized by TED talks after reading http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/12/magazine/12letters-t-CORRE... . I was further disappointed that the Ted talk webpage was not updated after that development.

Er. So does it work or not on wild crows? This article implies that the study on wild crows hadn't been done.

How does TED fits in all of this?

A TED talk about this project helped popularize this particular example of crow intelligence. http://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_klein_on_the_intelligence_of...

Darn it... I just watched that the other day and was truly amazed.

It was all lies, then? Or mostly lies?

I told myself a year or two ago that I was going to stop watching TED talks because of their misinformation problems, and this was the first one I had watched since. Fool me once...

I think there is a big difference between gift and payment.

Your article is on skinnerian conditioning to train crows to pay for peanuts.

In this article the crows got peanuts whether they gave gifts or not. They just decided to give gifts. No training occured.

Perhaps in the mind of the crows, they are giving gifts as a reward. In effect, training the human (in the article).

That is mind-blowing, and makes me want to reevaluate the concept of gift giving.

There's a famous quote attributed to the Inuit that Marcel Mauss mentions in The Gift: "Gifts make slaves like whips make dogs." Both halves of that statement are provocative.

So can we consider our paychecks to be gifts then?

That only proves how smart crows are, they can both participate in an economy and operate on a gifting basis.

Clearly, they're the same crows.

Paying crows peanuts to 'find' money has to be the best business plan ever. This could be bigger than Apple.


"We have discovered an intelligent being ... we must TROLL IT!"

A lot of people refuse to believe that animals (or birds) can show any kind of advanced thinking. "Oh, the crow was probably carrying something in its beak; it saw the peanut, and dropped the thing in its beak" is their explanation. I'm sorry, but animals are far more perceptive than they're given credit for.

Also, how do you explain this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5NuBk5_Izc

>He thought, he judged, as animals can be seen to do, if observed without prejudice. I must say here, since it has to be said somewhere about Hugo, that I think the series of comments automatically evoked by this kind of statement, the ticker-tape remarks to do with anthropomorphism’ are beside the point. Our emotional life is shared with the animals; we flatter ourselves that human emotions are so much more complicated than theirs. Perhaps the only emotion not known to a cat or a dog is -romantic love. And even then, we have to wonder. What is the emotional devotion of a dog for his master or mistress but something like that sort of love, all pining and yearning and ‘give me, give me’. What was Hugo’s love for Emily but that? As for our thoughts, our intellectual apparatus, our rationalisms and our logics and our deductions and so on, it can be said with absolute certainty that dogs and cats and monkeys cannot make a rocket to fly to the moon or weave artificial dress materials out of the by-products of petroleum, but as we sit in the ruins of this variety of intelligence, it is hard to give it much value: I suppose we are undervaluing it now as we over-valued it then. It will have to find its place: I believe a pretty low place, at that.

- Doris Lessing

I blame this on the "DreamWorks Effect", animators have done such a good job giving animals human traits and emotions that millinials+ really can't help but be animists.

Conversely, I think Christians (for one) do not like the idea of animals having "human traits", because it goes against their core mythology, which says that God created man in His image. If animals also started showing human traits, then Man isn't so special anymore, is he?

Edited: I'm being downvoted, but this was the exact reasoning given to me by a rather devout Christian; and it seemed to make sense. I'm agnostic, btw.

I don't support any downvotes of you, but there are many different types of Christians; this kind of thought is a bit foreign to me as an Orthodox Christian. Consider what St. Isaac of Syria says:

"The humble man approaches wild animals, and the moment they catch sight of him their ferocity is tamed. They come up and cling to him as their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. They scent as coming from him the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This scent was taken away from us, but Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming. It is this which has sweetened the fragrance of humanity."

To an Orthodox Christian, restoring the relationship of humanity with animals, which includes that of their expressing intelligence, love, and other such "human-like" traits, is to work towards restoration of our pre-fallen state. The Image of God lies not just in these traits... without going into a deep discussion here, for Orthodox this Image can be seen in the Transfiguration of Christ: that of glorified, deified[1] humanity united with the energy[2] of God.

Some more information is available here: http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/misc/flana...

[1] http://orthodoxwiki.org/Theosis [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essence%E2%80%93Energies_distin...

> Conversely, I think Christians (for one) do not like the idea of animals having "human traits", because it goes against their core mythology

Lots of Christians, including fairly devout ones, have no problems with recognizing human traits in animals; sometimes, this is in part because of a core theology that distinguishes between traits in the material universe and spiritual essences (cf., Catholic doctrines related to transubstantiation.)

> I'm being downvoted, but this was the exact reasoning given to me by a rather devout Christian

Christians are a rather diverse group, even when it comes to religious beliefs. The explanation given by a rather devout Christian on just about any issue is not particularly likely to be valid as a generalization of Christian belief.

Is this really a christian issue though ? I have friends who are hindu's, atheists, muslims, and buddhists, who intellectually seem okay with animals having human traits, but in the day to day pretty heavily deny animals having human traits ex. chickens. I guess it's cause people like to eat chickens, and don't want to feel bad ? I don't know

Counter-argument: The popularity of the Narnia books.

That's not a counter argument

Of course it is. It is evidence that many if not most Christians are perfectly happy with the notion of animals with souls, free will etc.

I'm guessing that the parent was referring to a story about talking animals with heavy Christian undertones.

Yes it is true. They have a particular concept of a "soul".

The ancient dharmic traditions (Hindu thought) always said being alive means having a soul. Advanced features such as intelligence are just part of the advanced body, not a litmus test of a soul's presence. The only litmus test is the symptoms of life.

Confused... you're saying that the crow in the video is not playing with the object? What other interpretation is there? It's not an instinctual nest building activity to go sledding on a foreign object, is it?

I'm a Gen-Xer, and I think that crow is sledding for fun.

If you look closely its trying to pick at something that it finds curious. Sledding could possibly be an accidental outcome of it being sitting on a thin edge, not the original purpose.

It could have been an accidental outcome the first time. But when the crow then picks up the disc and flies back up to the peak, fails to get any distance on an area with no snow, flies over to a snowy section, and sleds again...

Are you saying it figured out there was less friction with snow in matter of few seconds? All the while it's mind was occupied by something it had in its claws? It could be a genius crow(there has to be variation in intelligence amongst crows too), we will never know. I thought it got irritated with that thin edge quite quickly(being not able to stand comfortably) and hence flew away to look for a thicker one.

No, I think it's unlikely that the person filming caught the crow the first time it began to sled, and what we see in the video is a crow enjoying playing with physics the same way that we do. By "the first time" I meant "the first time the crow slid on something it was standing on, regardless of when that was", although I wasn't very clear about it.

The idea that humans do not share emotive traits with other animals would seem very unlikely, given what we know of the theory of evolution, observed animal behavior and neurology.

Also, you may want to have a look at The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness that was published for the Francis Crick memorial conference at Cambridge University.

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”



bullshit. Perhaps you don't understand that crows use tools. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtmLVP0HvDg and that they also are social and communicate with each other. They do give gifts to each other as part of courtship. We don't need to anthropomorphize to recognize plain facts about crows being intelligent and intentional and social.

I used to have a similar theory but personification of animals has been a part of human storytelling since the beginning of time.

I'm just unsure if modern CGI is any more compelling in forming lasting notions of animism than, say, Bambi was.

Seems like a reversal of cause and effect. We don't see human traits in animals because our stories have them, our stories have them because we often see human traits in animals.

Indeed at the beginning of the 20th century animals with human characteristics were attracting so much literary criticism even Theodore Roosevelt felt tempted to join the debate https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nature_fakers_controversy

By the way, I think that you and Varcht may be misusing the term 'animism' here.

Belief systems like Shinto are animist, where you think things like rivers and trees and rocks and the different winds are conscious and have souls.

Even with all the down votes I wouldn't write it off. These generations spent huge amounts of time watching real looking animals behave as humans while their brains were still developing.

It is funny that the OP, with a good point, gives an example of exactly why people are stupid and anthropomorphize animals, sure that crow is skiing.....

Which is a shame since the opposite is also true, animals can have emotions and intelligence. Just it's doesn't necessarily look the same as humans characteristics.

"DreamWorks Effect" millinials+ sorry but I don't think you could be more wrong.

Disney has being doing this since the 40/50's.

Bambi, Dumbo, Disney nature docos were awful, even David Attenborough who improved the situation vastly is also guilty.

It is at least the post WW2 generation.

On one of David Attenborough's recent shows, he said that crows can store up 30,000 pieces of food in various locations in the ground. They not only know where each piece of food is, but they know which ones are perishable and to get the food before it spoils. Pretty remarkable if you ask me.

More here:


The particular bird matching that number, Clark's Nutcracker, looks well studied. This paper discusses them caching 30,000 seeds, but not in 30,000 separate locations, it concludes that they locate at least 1,000 locations by memory:


(that author seems to have done much field work studying the bird)

Another paper estimates that they might cache 90,000 seeds.

The paper you linked to mentions them caching seeds in all manner of different locations. I wonder if they have some form of algorithm unknown to us to determine a good location, rather than choosing randomly. That would aid a lot in 'remembering' locations of the caches.

On that same program the showed an experiment with 2 crows in side by side cages. When the crows could see each other, they put the food in the soil without making any noise. When they blocked the view of the other bird they put the food into the rocks, which makes quite a bit of noise. So theres more going into where they hide their food then first glance.

From the reading I did they basically don't spend any time looking in spots where there is not a cache. Which at least suggests they are using memory.

Another David Attenborough moment on crows [0]. Some crows in Japan have worked out how to crack nuts whose shell is too difficult for them to open themselves...

At a pedestrian crossing, drop the nuts onto road and wait for it to get run over. Then wait for light to turn red and traffic to stop, then pick up the opened nut.

How many leaps of thought would it take to arrive at such a system? Observing patterns of traffic, understanding the nut is not truly impenetrable but that they are too weak themselves, understanding that pressure/weight greater than they can apply will release the nut from the shell etc. It's incredibly clever!

[0] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p007xvww

I pissed off crows and they punished me for 2 weeks.

My uncivilized hooligan former neighbors had a young tree in their yard which they purposely allowed to grow for years right in the foundation of our brick wall. It started casting a shadow in our garden as well. There were no nests in the 20 foot young tree and the property was abandoned and now owned by the bank. So I ran over and cut it down. It was big enough to start cracking the foundation.

Big mistake, I should have worn a disguise. The crows who live in the tree above the one I cut took saw this as vandalism (well it technically was). For 2 weeks they would poop on my car non-stop. Only my car. They knew the PT Cruiser was mine, they shat all over that car. They specifically aimed for the door handle on the driver's side. I have never seen such vengeful birds and such nasty bird crap. It was discussing. They'd carpet bomb it all day, every day, for 2 weeks. I would have about 14 bird crap splatters on the car on any given day. They finally stopped after about 2 weeks.

I should have had a neighbor do it or worn a disguise.

Looks like the crows' intelligence can go both ways! I suspect that your disguise would not have fooled them though. I've watched some amazing feats of Crow problem solving (thanks Sir David Attenborough!) so they probably would have just watched which house you went into and carpet bombed ALL the cars in the driveway.

Whenever someone asserts that mammalian-equivalent intelligence is incredibly unlikely to arise twice, I like to point towards very intelligent and social birds, like crows - who are capable of performing advanced mental feats without a neocortex.

Avian neuroscience is actually pretty cool. Our neocortex is made up of 6 layers of cell bodies, with interconnections and projections to other parts of the brain and body. The avian brain, however, is not divided into layers, but is more like the brainstem, in the sense that it's a lot of nuclei and bulbous areas called the nidopallium and mesopallium. The songbirds are well studied, if you want to do some research, as we the vocalizations are easier to measure and mess with. Mind that crows, though very smart for birds, as still nowhere near us humans or our close friends, the dog or pig. It still seems that the neocortex and many other factors have beaten the corvid brain to civilization and are, at least in this environment, better suited for higher intelligence.

Good starter articles on corvid intelligence are:



Tangentially, there is recent discussion of the idea that the neocortex is homologous to structures that do exist in the avian forebrain, eg that mammalian neocortex vs avian forebrain is almost the same processing units, wired with almost the same way connectivity, but just with a slightly different spatial organization:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212... Harvey J. Karten. Neocortical Evolution: Neuronal Circuits Arise Independently of Lamination.

Some evidence is that some genes which correlate with cortical layers in mammals show up in these other places in avians.

nature rarely does anything just once. if it can happen once it can almost certainly happen more than once, and almost certainly does happen more than once.

In case it wasn't clear from my comment: that was my point. I agree with you.

Here's a more scientific look at the behavior:

John Marzluff & Tony Angell: Gifts of the Crow (2012)

Video: https://archive.org/details/scm-67314-johnmarzlufftonyangell...

Book: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Gifts-of-the-Crow/John-Mar...

Konrad Lorez, one of the founders of the field of animal behavior and a Nobel laurete, did a lot of his research on jackdaws, which are a close relative of the crow. His book King Solomon's Ring is a really enjoyable read into his insights about their intelligence and social life.

For anyone interested in psychology in general, his text "On Aggression" is an amazingly well developed read on the habits of aggression starting with fish, then birds, then eventually mammals (concluding of course with humans).

The final explanation of why a loving father of four can firebomb a city filled with innocent people blew my mind as a younger man and shaped my worldview.

I think I'll add King Solomon's Ring to my amazon cart now.

Cheers for reminding me of him.

> Lisa logged on to her computer and pulled up their bird-cam. There was the crow she suspected. "You can see it bringing it into the yard. Walks it to the birdbath and actually spends time rinsing this lens cap."

Why wouldn't they put this video in the BBC article?

They may not have kept it. The camera system may keep a certain amount of prior footage that is automatically flushed at a certain age, or that the users clean out when it gets large. This is recounting a story from a few weeks ago.

You know what? After spending hours reading comments here, then watching videos and a talk about crows, it's decided. Screw drones. I don't want a quadcopter. I want to befriend a few crows and see if I can convince some to do cool stuff.

As someone who has worked a LOT with drones of all form factors (quad copters, propeller drones, battery and dead dinosaur-fueled), when drones can do this, drones will be cool:




I remember that video. It was featured in a TED talk I very like [0]. Murmuration is one of the most amazing things I ever saw on YouTube. Thanks for reminding me of it.

[0] - http://www.ted.com/talks/don_tapscott_four_principles_for_th...

Crows are incredibly smart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY8-gP3Sw_8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5_DuZ8WuMM Saw this video a while back and was really quite amazed the process adopted to crack walnuts. After watching that video I definitely had a higher level of "respect" for animals and their intellect.

David Suzuki did an interesting show about crows but of course due to annoying geoIP copyright can't find an American version to link.


There's signs up at some Indian public markets forbidding vendors taking payment from monkeys as they watched humans exchange cash for fruit and became pickpockets. No gifts though except a huge tip when handing over piles of notes for one bunch of bananas.

Url should be simplified to http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026

I was disappointed that this article didn't include a definite scientific opinion on whether the crows saw this as an exchange for food, or if for some reason they bring objects to a feeding area.

crows leave gifts for one another. This may be some variant of that, triggered by the food?

Give and receive. This is some support for the idea that the law of reciprocity is ingrained fundamentally in us, even to lower form species like birds.

Give and receive. This is support that the law of reciprocity might be ingrained in us--evident even in lower form species like birds.

At what point do we start calling them "people"?

Anyone else experiencing difficulties with the bbc site?

This is cool, but isn't that surprising, if you think about the behaviours of other species, and that corvids as a whole are highly intelligent and use tools in a fashion akin to primates.

I mean, primates give gifts to each other and humans, and my cat loves nothing more than to leave the most succulent bits of viscera of whatever her prey was for me on Persian rugs, for me to enjoy, by which I mean tread on while heading to the shower in the morning.

I think it is very surprising even given findings about corvid intelligence. I know of studies showing crows can count, but that kind of intelligence does not at all imply that a creature will spontaneously give gifts in exchange for food. This requires either some kind of ethics including reciprocity, or it requires that the crows reason that giving gifts will make someone more likely to give more food. The latter reasoning requires that the crows are able to model the behavior of an intelligent agent under hypothetical circumstances.

Bird brains are very different from mammal brains; they don't have a neocortex. So it's very interesting that they have developed similar gift-giving behavior to mammals and primates.

Crow flies with thing in its beak. Sees food, drops thing, grabs food. Comes back later, sees more food! Assumes food came from dropping thing (See "Superstition in the pigeon" [0]). Meme spreads among the crows.

No ethics or deep reasoning required. Random rewards lead to irrational behavior.

[0] http://psychclassics.asu.edu/Skinner/Pigeon/

The final example though, where a Crow returns the camera-lens cap to the family requires some pretty advanced thinking. We know that Crows recognize human faces and expressions, and communicate these facts amongst each other.

Crows / Ravens are the only creature aside from Humans who perform meta-tool use. They can use tools to grab tools to accomplish a goal. In many ways, they're smarter than (non-human) primates, and are probably the 2nd smartest animals on earth.


Birds in general are pretty smart (see Pidgeons, Parrots, etc. etc.) However crows / ravens are on a completely different intelligence level. Crows break nuts by dropping them on the asphalt... timing their drops during red lights so that traffic doesn't hit them.

Besides, gift-giving is seen in far dumber animals than crows. Dogs, Cats, Penguins... they don't have the intelligence of Crows but they understand gifts and social situations.

It sounds like there's a pretty big amount of crows that got in on the "drop gifts for food" program. And a camera lens is well within the range of what a crow would usually be interested in. It doesn't sound unlikely to me that it would just pick it up as any other thing and gift it.

Crows are awesome though, I'm not trying to put down their intelligence, haha. I just wanted to point out that neither deeper reasoning nor ethics is required to explain this phenomenon. One of the researchers in the article said that he had never experienced the gift giving, even though he also fed crows often. That to me makes it more sensible to believe that it's just a meme that developed by chance

That's not what the researcher said. He made no claim to having fed them often (and consistently, which is mentioned as helpful to induce the behavior).

But crow gifts are not guaranteed. "I can't say they always will (give presents)," Marzluff admits, having never received any gifts personally, "but I have seen an awful lot of things crows have brought people.

> The final example though, where a Crow returns the camera-lens cap to the family requires some pretty advanced thinking.

I think the article (and probably the podcast? haven't listened yet) make too big a deal of this. We don't know that the crows realized that the lens cap belonged to those people. Perhaps they just saw it as another neat thing to gift. Perhaps they smelled the family on it, and just returned it to a place that smelled similarly.

Do birds have a sense of smell?

It's a relatively weak sense of smell for most (with exceptions for birds such as turkey vultures that can smell carrion for miles), but yes.

For many birds though, it's nowhere as good as their hearing or eyesight.

Perhaps they smelled the family on it, and just returned it to a place that smelled similarly.

Can you do that?

Most people never try. Feynman found he could, to some extend.


That story makes me suspect that Feynman was also a genius at flirting.

> Can you do that?

Maybe not, but then, humans have a pretty poor sense of smell compared to lots of other animals.

I can't, but I have no idea what that's supposed to prove. That animals have abilities I don't? I can't fly, either, or swim in the arctic ocean and catch fish with my mouth.

What amazes me is crows manage to do all this with their beaks. Imagine if they had limbs and hands like monkeys? It would be Rise of the Planet of the Ape Crows.

Man looks up to the sky in distress. Man prays to the Sun. Tomorrow problem is solved. Assumes Sun fixed problem. Meme spreads among men.

Addendum: Other man says this is random. Sun believer says don't insult my problem solver. Other man persists. Sun believer kills him.

I think I may have worked at that company. Was the sun believer called Phil?

Twist: It was Sun Microsystems

But weren't the crows being fed even before they started giving the gifts?

Meme spreads among the crows.

So, to be clear, you're positing an alternative theory wherein one or more crows learn a behaviour, and teach that behaviour to other crows, who learn this complex concept and repeat the feat while they, too, pass it on.

And you think that's no big deal? :)

Animals learn from other animals by observing them? I don't think that's groundbreaking news.

It doesn't have to actively teach the other crows for them to catch on

About the "Superstition in the pigeon" link:

Kind of painfull that you link to Skinner's (pretty much) only ill-done research; See J.E.R. Staddon for a nice refutation of 'the superstition in the pigeon' experiment.

I think a lot of our intelligence research is mammal-biassed. When we think of intelligent animals we think primates, dolphins, dogs and maybe pigs.

We ignore birds and octopus.

I have a weird feeling most animals think a lot; it's not just instinct, or Behaviorism. I also have a weird feeling as humans we attribute too much of our actions to thinking, and not enough to instinct and Behaviorism? I still have huge issues with strict Behaviorists though. My Psychiatrist practices subtle reinforcement techniques, and they never worked, but I just can't tell him; he's a nice guy. I think he needs to validate his fees, in order to keep his own sanity?

Can I prove it--no! I just never bought those philosophy/psychology instructors who really tried to teach me animals don't think.

The older I get the more humans look like apes. I think my decline in testosterone is playing a part in the way I look at the world? The mystery of it all is fading--sadly--in humans and humanity. But the animal world is more fascinating than ever!

I am happily waiting for the first mammal to speak it's mind! I wish I could be around when it happens.

I have never seen anything to suggest that the 'inner world' of a member of some other Species, would be any smaller than or less varied and interesting, than my own.

Humans tend to be occupied in neurosis, and subterfuge, more than anything else.

While other species are largely occupied with 'Nous'...and thus, would be far more elegant in their mental process and decision making and overall ontological 'poise', than people generally are.

I've thought about this as well. A lot of the things I do don't really seem to be thought or thinking but instinct, with rationalization later. Lately I've been wondering if people think or animals actually "think". Perhaps everything we do extends from some kind of simple instinct in the case of insects to an extremely advanced form of instinct humans, primates, corvids, etc.

Side-note: octopuses enjoy a position as the only invertebrate protected by animal testing laws in the UK (as of 1993):


Reciprocity is possibly the simplest form of cooperation. All that would be required is the ability to distinguish between individuals and this type of social behavior could appear through simple Pavlovian conditioning.

Good heavens. My cats sometimes do things like that, but I always thought that it was all about passing down hunting wisdom and not much about gifts or gratitude.

Hoaxes involving children and/or their magical gifts: http://tempr.org/54ef57337b951.html

None of those seem relevant or even related to this story, except inasmuch as they involve a child.

a.) there are no gifts involved in the stories you posted

b.) it seems like the bbc witnessed the gift-giving

thanks for this, its a good reminder to be skeptical.

Hoaxes involving the BBC found from 30 seconds of Googling: http://tempr.org/54ef79520a0bc.html

Thought it read 'get lifts from birds' - disappointed.

I had a gift this morning, from a pigeon, onto my shoulder whilst waiting for the train to pull into the platform for work.

Supposed to be lucky - not sure for me or the pigeon though!

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