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  • Roberta Winchester

The Social Crow

One of my great joys this past winter was observing flocks of crows moving about in great numbers, especially in the evenings as they would head toward the nearby Rio Grande River. I wondered what caused them to gather in such huge numbers.*

Crow standing on a wall in a city

Crows, often dismissed as mere scavengers, are in fact remarkable creatures with a highly developed social structure that rivals some of the most intelligent mammals. As we delve into the world of social crows, it becomes evident that these birds are not only adept problem solvers and quick learners but also excel in forming complex and dynamic social networks.

  • Intelligent Communicators: Crows are known for their socially sophisticated communication skills. They utilize a diverse range of vocalizations, gestures, and even tools to convey messages within their groups. Studies have shown that crows can communicate about specific individuals, locations, and potential threats, demonstrating a level of linguistic complexity that sets them apart in the avian world.

Two social crows in the top of an evergreen tree

  • Community Dynamics: Crows form tight-knit communities, often living in family units that extend beyond the nuclear family. These communities exhibit cooperation in various activities, from foraging to raising their young. Research suggests that crows can recognize each other individually, fostering strong social bonds within the group.  

  • Problem-Solving Prowess: Crows are renowned for their problem-solving abilities, often compared to primates in terms of cognitive skills. They can use tools, understand cause and effect relationships, and demonstrate an impressive capacity for learning from their environment. This cognitive prowess contributes to their adaptability in various habitats.

Crows gathering in treetops
  • Cultural Transmission: Crows have been observed passing down knowledge from one generation to the next, a phenomenon known as cultural transmission. This involves the transmission of behaviors, tools, and even feeding habits, showcasing a form of social learning that contributes to the survival and success of the group.

  • Altruistic Behavior: Contrary to their reputation as opportunistic scavengers, crows display altruistic behavior within their communities. There have been instances of crows coming to the aid of injured or distressed group members, emphasizing a sense of empathy and social responsibility. Recently a crow with an injured wing came into our local wildlife rescue clinic. Except for its injury, it was remarkably well-nourished and clearly had been fed by its fellow crows.

A crow flying over an urban setting
  • Innovative Problem-Solving in Urban Settings: Social crows have adapted remarkably well to urban environments, showcasing innovative problem-solving skills in navigating and thriving amidst human structures and have been observed using traffic to crack hard-to-open nuts, repeatedly "sledding" down a steep, snow-covered roof using a piece of plastic, and solving puzzles to obtain food rewards.

In conclusion, the social lives of crows are far more intricate and fascinating than commonly perceived. These birds exhibit remarkable intelligence, complex communication, and a strong sense of community. By understanding and appreciating the social dynamics of crows, we gain valuable insights into the diversity of intelligence and social structures in the animal kingdom. As we continue to explore the depths of avian cognition, it becomes increasingly clear that crows are not just observers of our world but active participants in their own complex societies.

*A flock of crows is referred to as a murder of crows. Where did that phrase come from? It could be from old folktales: flocks of crows held trials to judge and punish members of the flock that had transgressed and if found guilty, the transgressor was murdered by the flock. We think this comparison is hardly fair.


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