September 14, 2021
EP. 122 — The Spectacular Social Lives of Crows with Anne B. Clark
Crows may seem like garbage birds that only live to pick through trash on your street, but they’re actually some of the most intelligent animals on Earth, with complex social relations and a bona fide culture. On the show this week Anne B. Clark, Professor at Binghamton University joins Adam to talk about what makes these feathered friends so freaking fascinating!
122 — The Spectacular Social Lives of Crows with Anne B. Clark
Speaker 1 [00:00:22] Hello everyone, welcome to Factually. I’m Adam Conover, thank you so much for joining me once again as I talk to an incredible expert about all the amazing things they know that you probably don’t know that I definitely don’t know, and both our minds get blown together. That’s how I’m introducing the show. I think it’s pretty good. I think it’s a pretty good description. Let’s jump in to this episode. I might have mentioned this on the show at some point, but I am a bird watcher now. I watch birds. OK, get over it. That’s what I do. I’m not going to stop just because you don’t like it. It’s a hobby that I took up in one of the earlier stages of the pandemic, and I fucking love it. It’s an incredible way to spend time outside without wondering, ‘OK, what do I do now?’ You know what I mean? You go outside, you’re like, ‘It’s nice to be outside, but like, does my computer miss me? Should I pull out my phone? What’s going on?’ When you bird watch, you go outside and then you look for birds. Two hours fly by, it’s amazing. Gives you something to do outside and also, you get to participate in a big citizen science project report: how many birds you saw. Ornithologists can use that to track bird positions. It’s fucking awesome. I can’t shut up about it. But let me tell you one of my favorite things about bird watching, OK, which is that I live in Los Angeles and I normally think of this place as a concrete blasted wasteland. No natural anything around, except a couple of barren palm trees that are going to die in a couple of years. But once I started birdwatching, I realized that I am actually surrounded by the natural world in all of its fascinating glory. I walk to the L.A. river to bird watch, and it has a reputation ,the L.A. river, for being shitty. A concrete channel that’s barely a river at all. But when I go there, I’ve been going there over the past year and I have seen over 100 different species of bird in that area and in the surrounding area. I’ve been able to see how the seasons change, how the ducks come in winter and the swallows come in – Well, actually, I haven’t quite tracked when the swallows come here, but ducks definitely come in winter. At least I will verify that this coming winter, I’ve only been doing this for about a year so far. But here’s the point: birding has made me aware of a whole world of natural beauty and complexity just down the street from my house. Take crows, for example. I always assumed that crows were kind of a trash bird. You know, there’s so many of them. They eat garbage, they fly around. I classified them with rats or pigeons, you know what I mean? But dear listener, I could not have been more wrong. OK? Because as we will talk about today, crows are actually one of the most intelligent species of any animal on Earth. They have complex social hierarchies. They can recognize individual other crows and even individual humans. They even communicate so thoroughly, crows can actually be said to have a culture. They are crazy intelligent. They can solve eight part puzzles to get food. They can even think about their own thoughts, which is a form of higher intelligence, thought to only be found in humans until we found out that it also happens in crows. And the coolest part is that if you live in America, there are crows near you. We’re not talking about chimps. You don’t get to go to the jungle to find these guys. You just literally have to go look outside. So if you see a crow today, you have a choice. This is what bird watching has taught me. If you see a crow, you have the choice to look at it, to observe something that is so unique on Earth, right in your own neighborhood. Just because something is common to you doesn’t mean it’s not special, and my guest today has made a career out of doing that exact thing. Today on the show, we have Anne Clark, a professor of biological science at Binghamton University. I think you are going to flip for this interview. I certainly did. Please welcome Anne Clark. Anne Clark, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:04:01] Thanks a lot for having me, Adam. It’s a delight to be on the show and chat today.
Speaker 1 [00:04:06] Yeah. So look, just so you know, I started birding in my life about a year ago, and so I have only recently become alive to the possibility of birds in my life and everything that they do. I’m very excited to drill deep and talk about one bird species in particular. Why did you start studying crows? Let’s start with why. Why crows in particular?
Speaker 2 [00:04:31] Why crows? Well, I’ll tell you, it’s actually strange because I didn’t start with birds, and I don’t consider myself a dyed in wool ornithologist in the sense that I have any formal training in birds at all. Actually, most of what I do, I don’t have any formal training in, but that’s all right. That’s what happens in academia. But the basic line is that I started with working with prosimian primates, and I’ve always been interested in the evolution of complex social behavior. Why do animals not just live in groups, but spend a lot of effort and time in coming together again and communicating with certain individuals, even if they don’t live in a tight social group? I mean, we’re a case in point. All your best friends don’t travel around with you five feet away from you. So you make time and effort to get there. Why do you do that? And so that is a central academic behavioral ecologist question. What are the circumstances, the context in which complex social behavior evolves and is maintained? I was interested also in how animals with long lives diverged. So there was a parallel interest in what we now call personality. But what didn’t have a term when I was getting interested. When I got back from South Africa and studying prosimians for one reason or another, I got into studying budgies, little parakeets.
Speaker 1 [00:06:10] Little parakeet birds. Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:06:12] The guys at the pet store, basically.
Speaker 1 [00:06:16] Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:06:18] And they have very complex social lives. But I wanted to work with wild animals in their wild context and by a circuitous route, ended up realizing that a colleague of mine studying American crows had the perfect system: long lived animals that take a long time to grow up, are observable to an extent and have very complex social lives. So I actually made a jump from what I was doing, then studying parent offspring relations in redwing blackbirds, to working with crows.
Speaker 1 [00:07:00] You started studying crows in order to study social relationships in animals more generally because it was a really good example of that.
Speaker 2 [00:07:08] Yeah and particularly, I’d gotten really interested in animals that don’t live in tight social groups. If you’re a primatologist, when I grew up in academia, you studied baboons and rhesus monkeys. These are big open living, open country living species, and they live in a defined social group.
Speaker 1 [00:07:33] Mm hmm. That they’re in all the time.
Speaker 2 [00:07:36] All the time. They travel in their group. I was working with prosimian primates like bush babies, which are sort of squirrel like, supposedly primitive.
Speaker 1 [00:07:50] Very cute.
Speaker 2 [00:07:50] Very cute. And bite.
Speaker 1 [00:07:54] OK, so not so cute.
Speaker 2 [00:07:56] Well, they’re cute, but cute things have to bite too.
Speaker 1 [00:08:00] They will rend flesh, but they’re adorable. Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:08:02] Yes, exactly. I had been studying them in the wild, and the basic discovery that I was making was that they’re highly social; contrary to what they were expected to be as nocturnal animals. They were expected to be quite solitary and to represent a lower level of primate sociality. But instead, they were living lives in which they forage singly and arrange, if you will, by calls to get back together at various times during the night and sleep together in the daytime. So they were actually working like we do to be social.
Speaker 1 [00:08:48] Yeah, you have to put extra work in to say, ‘Hey, let’s meet up in this tree top’ in the same way there’s a friend I want to hang out with tonight and I say, ‘Hey, man, you want to go to a soccer game.?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, what time?’ And he’s going to meet me and we’re going to go together and I basically got tickets to the soccer game just so I could invite a friend and hang out with a friend. I’m going to do extra work just so I can be social, and that’s what these animals are doing, too. And crows do this too, is what you’re saying.
Speaker 2 [00:09:14] Yeah. So crows actually combine a bit of everything. The American crows, which are the ones that we primarily study, have territories. They have a recognizable area in which small family groups, which can get large because they are also extended family groups there. They start with nuclear family, but they can be kids from previous years. They’re are what we call ‘cooperative breeders.’ Their kids from previous years or joiners from other groups swell those ranks. So maybe on average, three to four on any given month or up to 12 or even 15 is one of our largest groups that we have. So they do have a territory, but they leave it and they join other crows. In the winter, they travel with large groups of crows and roost with (sleep with) large groups of crows. My colleague Kevin McGowan, who started this study in 1989 here in Ithaca, New York, he always describes them as having a very human lifestyle. With a the family they recognize as family, but also all sorts of associations outside of that.
Speaker 1 [00:10:43] Like, they have friends and they have coworkers basically?
Speaker 2 [00:10:48] Yeah, and they go to the mall just to see what’s stirring, and they say, ‘It’s a lot safer. I’m going to the motel tonight where everybody’s there and we’ll all hang out together.’
Speaker 1 [00:11:01] They’re really complex, interesting birds, aren’t they? I’m so struck by, again, I started birdwatching in the middle of the pandemic in order to get outside and just to find a way to connect with nature a little bit more in the wasteland of Los Angeles. One of the wonderful things I find out about it is that, ‘Oh, it turns out Los Angeles isn’t such a wasteland.’ There’s nature and there’s birds I’ve seen over a hundred bird species in just a year, just in my own concrete city. But you quickly learn, ‘OK, there’s crows (and ravens we have here) everywhere. They’re all over the place.’ They’re frankly the most common bird that you would see. In some places you might see more pigeons, more rock pigeons, but look anywhere and you’ll see crows and ravens. And so at first you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of just like a trash bird, whatever. They’re like pigeons. They’re like rats.’ They’re just an animal of human society. But then the more you watch them – Pigeons are kind of boring, they just sit there and they go ‘coo’ and they fly around. But crows are like always up to something. You start to realize that these are exceptionally smart and really, really interesting creatures, right?
Speaker 2 [00:12:11] They’re watching you as much as you’re watching them, and they are. So one of the things that has to be said right off, is that most of the work we’ve done has been with crows living in a small city: Ithaca, New York. So we might want to call them urban or suburban. They certainly cohabit with people and their territories contain people’s yards. I live rurally outside of Ithaca now, and we’re beginning to look in a variety of ways, including genetics, at the more rural crows to answer some questions that we may talk about in a bit. Because there’s been a lot of interest in animals that do what you are seeing in your neck of the woods: adapt to living right near us. In the 1970s, you would not have had that experience.
Speaker 1 [00:13:12] Really why is that? How do you mean?
Speaker 2 [00:13:17] American crows in particular, they’re widespread across the US. One of my colleagues calls them synanthropic, meaning that they’ve always kind of associated with people over a long time; with indigenous peoples, perhaps, as they may have used their refuge piles. They’re scavengers, they’re generalists. So it wasn’t that there were unused to people. But when we built cities, during the period when the white settlers were moving in they shot them. It’s a big enough bird to eat. It’s a big enough bird to hate, if you don’t like them landing near your crops.
Speaker 1 [00:14:05] You build a scarecrow. We literally have this cultural memory of a person that you build to get the damn crows out of the field. Now, why don’t you want the crows in the field? Are they eating your seed or something? I actually have no idea why a farmer wants to scare a crow in the first place.
Speaker 2 [00:14:21] Well, I sort of have some debates with people about what they’re actually doing, but there’s no question that when you make a garden or plant corn, whether or not they’re eating the base of that corn, I don’t know. But they go and they flip it out and they basically undo your sprouting corn very nicely. But on the flip side, in the early nineteen hundreds, this was well documented. The other thing they’re doing in your fields is they’re eating grubs and eating things that eat your crops. So knowledgeably, you wouldn’t want to crow on doing your planting, but you might want crows to work in your fields at some point.
Speaker 1 [00:15:11] This is a creature that we have a deep connection with, you’re making me realize. We literally build a little homunculus of ourselves and stick it on a pole in a field, which I assume we’ve been doing for a very long time because that strikes me as a very old folk process.
Speaker 2 [00:15:27] It’s probably European.
Speaker 1 [00:15:28] European? Yeah, that makes sense.
Speaker 2 [00:15:31] I don’t actually know the history of scarecrow. Somebody ought to write one.
Speaker 1 [00:15:36] Yeah, if you ever meet someone who knows the history of scarecrows, let me know because I want to get them on this show because now I’m really curious. Where did that start? Because what a strange, spooky, weird thing to do: to build a mannequin and stick it on a pole. It almost seems like some kind of weird, pantheistic prayer to the crow God or something. But in any case, so we’ve got a deep relationship with these animals. But you’re saying that our relationship with them in cities has changed.
Speaker 2 [00:16:06] Yeah. So one of the other things we did for crows is not only put up scarecrows, but we’ve hunted them. We’ve shot them with guns and crows were very, very, very quick to learn that they shouldn’t get too close to people with guns. There’s lots of stories about people across the 1800’s and 1900’s of walking out with a gun and every crow goes up, not in your front yard, but one field away.
Speaker 1 [00:16:34] Wow.
Speaker 2 [00:16:35] So their idea of danger and people was pretty well established. They knew that they could use people, but they didn’t want to be near people with guns.
Speaker 1 [00:16:47] But crows in Los Angeles are not that afraid of people.
Speaker 2 [00:16:53] Now I realize that there are guns in our cities, but people are not shooting crows, right?
Speaker 1 [00:16:58] Yeah, no, not particularly.
Speaker 2 [00:17:01] One of the things that happened, is that as cities were growing in the nineteen hundreds; crows were not moving in. That was just too close to people. Then in 1972, we have the Migratory Bird Act. That basically said that you cannot shoot migratory birds, and crows are included in that. It was called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So this included treaties with Canada. There’s more details on that, I’m not saying it very clearly. But in any case, what that meant is that crows stopped being shot at a lot of the time, although it was certainly still allowed in some cases. If you were a farmer, you could still shoot crows if they were a nuisance. Then, as cities got large and people in them didn’t want other people shooting at each other in them or anything where they could injure another person. Shooting a gun in a city is now outlawed. So crows are kind of doubly protected beginning in the seventies, and it was at that point somewhere in the sixties and seventies that they start being recorded as actually breeding in cities and staying in cities. So if you think about it, when my colleague Kevin McGowan at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology began studying these crows in Ithaca in 1989, it was basically forty years since the crows had moved into town. They were still relative newbies, and crows can live a long time. They were living 10 or 12 years. We’ve got 3 crows who have lived 19 years. So we could be looking at the grandchildren of the first crows to be in the cities.
Speaker 1 [00:19:21] They’re literally second generation immigrants. That’s wild. But also their behavior is changing so fast. If, like you said, you’d come out 50 years ago, you’d come out with a gun and all the crows would take off. I’ll tell you, there’s some crows sitting on the fence outside my house right now, and when I go outside, they will not move an inch. So is there some kind of cultural memory? Are they telling each other to change their behavior in this way? Because it’s too fast for natural selection to work. So they must be learning, collectively, how to respond to us.
Speaker 2 [00:20:05] They are, as you say, a really smart bird. They’re a long lived bird. One of the things that we do know is that the evolution of smart learning capacitated animals is certainly a long life because it’s more useful to learn if you’re going to live a long time. So that argument seems to hold up in that sense. And so, yes, they learn readily from each other. And one of the hypotheses that I certainly have not tested or can show is that by moving between groups; moving outside your family and visiting a large foraging area or whatnot, you might learn what those crows over there (or some of those crows) fear. So if you’re a young crow and you’re moving around between groups, you not only get to learn what your family fears, but you may get education on what somebody else fears. It takes them two years to become mature at all. For most of our crows in town, they’re not breeding; they’re not a member of a pair until they’re three, four or five. Depending on sex and depending on year, etc. So, yes, there’s a lot of opportunities for them to learn and being this flexibly social individual, again, it’s reminiscent of humans. I hate to be sort of anthropomorphic (or maybe it’s the other way) but the fact is that we know that research shows that young humans learn a lot from their peers, right? They don’t just spend time in their families, but they go over to the neighbors and it’s like, ‘Well, my friends do it this way.’
Speaker 1 [00:22:09] Well, what you’re describing is culture, right? That is something that you learn, not just on an individual basis, but in this amorphous way. By following what other people do around you. That that sort of gets into you, it’s the same thing when when parents say, ‘Oh, I didn’t teach my kid this, but as soon as they came back from school, they started doing this. Or ‘Why is my kid associating pink with femininity? I didn’t teach them that. Nobody specifically told them that. Where did it come from?’ They just kind of picked it up out of the gestalt of being in a group of other humans. You’re telling me crows do the same thing. That’s a quality I think of as being exclusively human, but it’s literally happening in the birds around my neighborhood. It’s incredible.
Speaker 2 [00:22:57] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And again, these are hard things to show in a critical scientific way. But it’s not just you, it’s lots and lots of people who either dislike crows or like crows, and they have very different relationships with crows because the crows actually learn to recognize humans. The sad fact is, I work with crows and I cannot recognize individual crows reliably. But crows can be pretty good at recognizing individual humans.
Speaker 1 [00:23:33] Are they ever offended? You’re like, ‘Hey, what’s up Ben?’ And they’re like, ‘No, that’s a different crow. Oh, we all look alike to you? Great. Pretty rude.’ Yeah. I actually learned that from – I don’t know if you have read Jenny Odell’s book; ‘How to Do Nothing,’ but that was one of the books that got me started birdwatching. She was a guest on this podcast in our first year, and she wrote about (I forget if it was either crows or ravens) how she started a relationship with a number of either crows or ravens in her neighborhood, and they would come to her window and she would feed them and and just had this very intense relationship of being seen and known by a crow that she thought was very interesting and wrote about very movingly in that really incredible book. Yeah, that’s a real experience that people have. I want to be friends with a crow. What is it like to have a crow know you?
Speaker 2 [00:24:31] Well, my students, we not only study crows in terms of putting bands on them (I can tell you more about that in a bit) and tags and we follow them through their lives and we’re interested in where they go, how well they reproduce, a lot of things like that. My students also have more specific questions; one of my students is working with personality. Another has looked at development of curiosity, if you will, and their attitudes toward novel or non-food objects. When we do that kind of work, we need to have crows that will work with us. We need to have crows that will allow us to ask them scientific questions and yet be free. Right?
Speaker 1 [00:25:25] Crows that are like, ‘Hey, Anne, what’s up? What do you want to do today?’
Speaker 2 [00:25:27] Yeah. One of the problems with crows is that (American Crows, at least) they’re incredibly neophobic. They have a reputation for being neophobic.
Speaker 1 [00:25:40] What does neophobic mean?
Speaker 2 [00:25:40] Being scared of novelty, scared of new and unknown things that they haven’t met before. One of the things we were interested in, and are continuing to be interested in, is the proposition that a number of people have made; which is that animals living in cities around people, where things turn over a lot more – You know, you leave the plastic pink pony out in your yard. There’s a new building over here. There’s trash and then it goes away and then it comes back. Animals should, in cities, either be selected to be less responsive to novelty or less put off by it. Or that they should somehow rapidly habituate to it. We’ve been interested in one question which related to that, which is, are the personalities (if you will) or the responses to novelty by crows in cities in Ithaca different from those outside? To do these kinds of experiments, you need to get the crows to come to something. For us, it’s peanuts. Peanuts are your route to crow friendship, and it’s also a lot of fun to watch them open them and deal with them.
Speaker 1 [00:27:09] How do they open them?
Speaker 2 [00:27:11] We give them whole peanuts that are unsalted, so they’re as natural as possible, and they hold them with their feet and peck them open and remove the peanuts. Or, because crows are among those animals that hide food for later
Speaker 1 [00:27:29] My girlfriend does that.
Speaker 2 [00:27:31] Yeah, ask her if she says ‘caw’ when you aren’t looking. But they’ll sometimes stack all the peanuts in their mouth because they have a pouch in the base of what you might term their mouth, that’s actually behind their beak. They can stack these in here, and they can probably get four, five, six or more peanuts in their bills at one time and they’ll fly them off and stash them in places that they make in the ground. They can dig out a little bit and then they’ll put more stuff on top of it. Very hard to find.
Speaker 1 [00:28:16] Cool. What are they doing that in cities? Are there peanuts hidden around L.A. in places?
Speaker 2 [00:28:23] Might well be. Might be. I’m not going to say that I could find them because I have gone to places where crows have hidden something and gone ‘You know, I can’t see it.’ So that’s really good. So, yeah, they are typically quite put off by novel things still, and we can come back to that. It’s a whole set of questions. But nevertheless, they will learn to use food and like food that you give them. You’ve probably heard of a number of these instances, in which people have had crows coming to their yard because they continually feed them. Ours have gotten used to the fact that we feed them peanuts. We don’t feed them all the time. We do census routes; where we go and we look for the crows who are living in different places just to see if they’re still there and who’s there. We try to be somewhat unreliable feeders because we don’t want to be a major source of food, but we want them not to fly away from us. We want them to be interested in being noticed.
Speaker 1 [00:29:41] Then when you’re trying to study how averse they are to new things, what do you then do? Do you come out with like with a pink pony, like you say and wave it at them and make a weird noise and see if the crow flies away or what?
Speaker 2 [00:29:56] We don’t want them to associate us with something horrible and novel. No, we will get them to the point that we know where this family lives, and we’ll usually find places where they’re comfortable coming down at the side of the road for peanuts. Then we’ll go out and set up some peanuts and maybe put a piece of something novel like a plastic flower. One of the things that my student, Yvette Brown (who’s now got her Ph.D., she’s down at Kennesaw), she used plastic flower. She used nuts; just large English walnuts, which are not native, which we don’t find growing around here. As a sort of innocuous food, but never the less novel. Then one of her most fear eliciting objects was a pink hula hoop, not very big. A sparkly pink hula hoop. That was more than any of our crows could handle. They never habituated. It was not that they got used to it. So that’s one of the things that she found, was that crows in cities; they have not lost fear of novelty. They’re just as careful as anybody else, but they’re constantly watching and observing, and they’re very curious. I think you could say they give themselves the time to habituate.
Speaker 1 [00:31:52] They’re just like, ‘I don’t know about that thing, but I’m going to -‘
Speaker 2 [00:31:55] ‘I’m going to sit on the wire for a while. Watch it from the tree.’
Speaker 1 [00:32:00] Well, that helps that they’re so intelligent. So it’s a situation in which it helps them; they mind the thing, but they’re cautious. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they’re so successful as opposed to – I’m just going to guess that pigeons aren’t very averse to new things, that they’re just down to do whatever. Maybe I have too low of an opinion of pigeons. I don’t know. Maybe you love pigeons.
Speaker 2 [00:32:21] Well, pigeons are not completely stupid, but I think you’re right. Crows are real standouts when it comes to reacting to novel objects or novel events, and they notice detail. Wow. It works against us: we’ll set up something. We have a thing called a net launcher, which we used here and there across the years to try to shoot a small net on blanks to try to capture them.
Speaker 1 [00:32:53] Oh, wow, that’s some very spy gear that you have. I’ve seen that in video games, I didn’t know that was something that exists in real life. You shoot a net, in order to catch the crew, they must not like that very much.
Speaker 2 [00:33:07] No, and it’s also not very successful because when you’re doing in cities, first of all, you have to use something small because otherwise it’s not allowed period and you’ll do it in somebody’s backyard. But this particular setup has a has central thing that shoots out the blanks, shoots pins carrying the net, and then that’s tied at the base by little guide wires or by little guide cords. I don’t know how many times we’ve gotten the crows habituated to an object that’s very similar to that. So that they don’t react to the basic net setup. But we go in at four o’clock in the morning and lay the little cords and they fly in and they’re all ready and they look around and somebody goes ‘Caw caw,’ and they’ve just spotted those cords. There’s this great big, lumpy thing that’s going to shoot a net at you, but they’ve gotten used to that. But you lay a cord down on the lawn and cover it with leaves and somebody sees it.
Speaker 1 [00:34:20] Amazing. It really blows my mind that these creatures that are so smart are all around and watching and looking in a really specific way. I have so many more questions about them. I specifically want to talk about crow roosts, which sound fascinating. But we got to take a quick break. We’ll be right back with more Anne Clark. OK, let’s get back into it, so tell me about crow roosts, you said crows get together every winter in these giant roosts. You have a whole website: CrowRoost.org. Tell me what is so fascinating about crow roosts.
Speaker 2 [00:35:03] OK, so first of all, crow roosting is most obvious to us in the winter. Because in the winter, crows in the northern parts migrate. Crows everywhere (even if they’re not northern) are probably much more mobile from their house, from their territory, from their central territory. There’s no nest to tie them there. There’s no babies in a nest to tie them there, so they’re much more mobile. Across the US in winter, there’s tends to be less food in specific areas, so you’re more likely to be searching for food. So it’s not just crow roosting that they do more socially in the winter, it’s also crow foraging. Where I’m living, in the northeast, they move out into agricultural fields that have been first harvested, and then they just keep working these fields for grubs and insects of various kinds and they can catch voles sometimes. They actually will catch and kill some small animals like voles and shrews. They can tussle. Even in the fall (or I should say, late summer) once the kids get mobile, we have tracked our birds with radios and found that they form local roosts, small roosts and that’s just basically local families will gather in a wood lot. Typically a fairly heavy wood lot, and sleep together. Now that doesn’t mean – it’s not pigeons on a wire. They’re sitting around at that point in trees, spaced out. But a group of them together. People have known that crows do this for a long, long time. As long as there have been people and crows mixing, they’ve known that crows make these roosts. The thought is, that one of the reasons they do it is that this is protective during the night against getting eaten by owls. Great horned owls are certainly one major crow predator that they have to be scared of. At night crows, like many diurnal (day living) perching birds like crows can’t see well. So if an owl comes flying into your roost at night, it’s really bad because it’s going to not only be able to get one or two of you, but you’re going to fly into trees, you could injure yourself. I mean, it’s not a thing that you want.
Speaker 1 [00:38:05] This is terrifying.
Speaker 2 [00:38:07] Yeah, it’s the boogeyman in the closet. Only worse.
Speaker 1 [00:38:10] Oh my gosh. Now I’m understanding why owls have their reputation as a frightening bird.
Speaker 2 [00:38:16] Yeah, I think they deserve it. They are wonderful birds, they’re amazing birds, but they are predators and crows are a big dinner.
Speaker 1 [00:38:26] I didn’t know that because crows are so big, I wouldn’t have imagined they were owl food.
Speaker 2 [00:38:33] Great horned owls can take wild turkeys, to give you an example.
Speaker 1 [00:38:37] Wow.
Speaker 2 [00:38:39] And they will often do so in the winter. So we think that crows link up into roosts, in part, for protection. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also serve other functions. These may get more important in the winter because in the winter, at least in the northern temperate, we’ve got snow and deep snow is not something that crows can forage in. Which is probably one of the reasons that the Canadian and northern boundary crows move down in the winter, so that’s where migration is really a big deal. They move to areas where they can get some food. And where I am in New York, migration is somewhat optional (if you will) and dependent on the year. So if we don’t have a lot of snow, you can potentially even stay home on your territory and just make forays. But you’re going to get a lot of crows who are in the farther north, moving down or in the farther northeast where there’s more snow moving in. So you get areas where crows kind of collect in the winter in larger numbers because of food. Many of those guys don’t have territories, right? They don’t live here. They’re the Florida migrants, right? What happens is that those guys establish sleeping sites, in wood lots again, and from following our crows with radios, we know that many of our own local crows with territories don’t go home to their territories at night. They join these. So those numbers swell.
Speaker 1 [00:40:34] This is like a yearly crow convention. It’s like all the crows from around the country, from around the continents are getting together. ‘Hey, we’re all getting together at the tree over there, so leave home for a little bit and go to the the convention because you’re going to a hotel’
Speaker 2 [00:40:52] It’s a big hotel, it’s going to be this great hotel. Yeah, and Auburn near us is one of the places the roost tend to be or have are known to be. It’s often the same site year after year.
Speaker 1 [00:41:11] So a crow from another part of the continent comes and is like “That’s the tree I always go to every winter and I meet a whole lot of other crows there.’ They go back to the same spot?
Speaker 2 [00:41:23] Or at least the same woods.
Speaker 1 [00:41:27] Does it serve some kind of social purpose for them as well, to get together? Are they talking or are they saying, ‘Hey, what’s up? I remember you. What’s going on in Canada?’
Speaker 2 [00:41:37] I wish we knew many, many, many more details. One of the things we have no idea about is how much learning or how much transmission of information because they don’t have language in the same symbolic sense that we do. But one of the things that they may be doing (and are likely to be doing in an immediate sense) is sharing information or using each other as sources of information about where to forage that day. So if you have a central area: you’ve got fifty thousand crows spread out over the landscape, and they’re going to come into that area in the night. They’re going to come in from where they last foraged, presumably. This is sort of the idea of having an information center (which people have worked with and is at least proposed as one of the things that crows and other big roost living animals are doing) is that when they wake up in the morning: if you left an area which was really still good to eat in, you probably head out there, right? If I didn’t, I’m going to sit there for a little bit and look around and join the guys who look like they really are excited about where they’re going.
Speaker 1 [00:43:05] Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:43:06] And so in this sense, whether they mean to trade information or not, they can’t help but give some information away about where the food is.
Speaker 1 [00:43:19] Yeah, this is wild. It’s very wild stuff. The more I learn about animals like this – We often have this idea that humans are very separate in the way that we operate as social animals. You’re like, ‘Oh, they don’t have language like we do, but they communicate in this way and that way and that way or that way and that way and that way and that way and that way.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, OK, we’re really just at one end of a continuum, or maybe in the middle of a continuum of ways that animals are social and communicate with each other and are intelligent.’ Dolphins get a lot of press for being a very intelligent animal, but crows are blowing my mind right now.
Speaker 2 [00:43:58] Well, I’d like to turn that around too. If we all came together in the mall and there was something going on, you would not require language to figure that out.
Speaker 1 [00:44:10] Mm hmm. Yeah, you’re right.
Speaker 2 [00:44:12] I think that we often get very hung up on, ‘Oh well, does this mean that crows are transmitting information in some direct linguistic way?’ No. They’re very good at reading each other. We’re very good at reading each other. We’re a very social species. We don’t require language for a lot of real basic communication. Crow communication is complicated, and I don’t really want to go too deeply there because I don’t think any of us adequately could tell you what crow calls mean or how many there are. That is really, I think, one of the most important areas that we can work on but it’s going to take a lot of creativity.
Speaker 1 [00:45:02] It sounds like if anyone can figure it out, it sounds like you can. Do crows purposefully cooperate to do – Wait, don’t some crows use tools? This a thing that I remember reading about.
Speaker 2 [00:45:15] OK, yeah. I think this is really important for people to realize, because most of us in the USA think that there’s one crow. There’s one crow and maybe one raven. That’s what most people think. There’s a number of crows. Crows and ravens are really only differentiated by size. After all, they’re the same genus. They’re all the genus Corvus.
Speaker 1 [00:45:44] So is everything that you’ve said so far also true of ravens generally, or?
Speaker 2 [00:45:49] In very general terms. The social systems can get different. But they’re different in ways that are probably fairly flexible. Even if we characterize them as different species. So I will say, first of all, (that in North America) in the east, we have fish crows and American crows. Fish crows, if you’re down in Florida, you’ll meet them and they say, ‘Ah ah’.
Speaker 1 [00:46:20] Uh huh.
Speaker 2 [00:46:23] Fish crows up in Ithaca, which is the northern border and of where they move to, say ‘Eh eh.’ They don’t say, ‘Ah ah.’
Speaker 1 [00:46:32] What do the American crows sound like? I want to hear them all now, Anne.
Speaker 2 [00:46:36] I have to do all the crow calls? No, there’s too many. But anyway, that’s how people tell them apart because they are all big black birds. It’s just really hard for us to tell them apart.
Speaker 1 [00:46:51] I got so proud once I learned the difference between a crow and a raven and I could tell the difference, I started telling everybody I knew. ‘Here’s how to tell the difference between crow and a raven’ and all my friends were like, ‘I didn’t even know there was a difference between a crow and a raven.’ I was like ‘No, here’s how you tell the difference,’ and I might even say this again in the intro to this episode (I haven’t decided yet because I’m such a fan of it). Tell me if I’m right, it’s that ravens, if you see one flying high and soaring, that’s the raven. Crows stay closer to the ground and they flap a lot. Is that generally correct?
Speaker 2 [00:47:24] That’s in the right direction. Crows have a rowing flapping, so you do notice they’re flapping. It’s a kind of rowing or flapping motion, it’s very even. Ravens do tend to go higher and soar more. They’re more acrobatic in the air. American crow tails and in a soft rectangle. Raven (common raven tails, at least) end in a wedge.
Speaker 1 [00:47:54] Yeah. They come to a bit of a point at the end.
Speaker 2 [00:47:57] Yeah, it’s kind of a big broad wedge.
Speaker 1 [00:47:59] Yeah. Crows do a ‘caw caw,’ and then a raven is more of a deep rattle or more like a froggy kind of croak.
Speaker 2 [00:48:13] Yeah, I mean, that’s certainly the typical thing that you might hear when they’re flying. Some of its body size.
Speaker 1 [00:48:23] Then what’s the body size thing?
Speaker 2 [00:48:28] One of my early grad students, Doug Robinson, who’s down at Mount St. Mary’s near New York. He was making recordings of blue jays and crows. If you slow the recording of a Blue Jay down, it sounds a lot like an American crow. And if you speed an American crow up, it sounds like a blue jay.
Speaker 1 [00:48:53] Yeah, I was just in Michigan, and it was my first time since bird watching being out so many Blue Jays and I thought ‘These are very crow like.’ They’re big ass birds that are really being noisy. They’re corvids right? They’re related to crows?
Speaker 2 [00:49:10] Yeah, absolutely. Crows, Jays and magpies are all in this group,
Speaker 1 [00:49:16] This came up because I asked you if they use tools,
Speaker 2 [00:49:20] Right. So that’s a quick segue into how one species of crow uses tools habitually. There are a bunch of species of crows in the world, and most all of them are big black birds with some variations in body. Like the Hooded Crow having a grayish body more white or gray somewhere around the head and neck and body. So the species of crow that uses tools is found on New Caledonia. It’s the New Caledonian Crow,
Speaker 1 [00:50:00] Where is New Caledonia?
Speaker 2 [00:50:02] It’s in the Pacific, I’m not going to try to tell you how many miles from New Zealand it is.
Speaker 1 [00:50:11] Got. It’s an island off of New Zealand.
Speaker 2 [00:50:13] It’s an island. A good ways from New Zealand. So it’s one of the island crows. They fly a lot differently than our American Crows because they’re not built for long distance travel. They’re more in the canopy, flying among wood lots and canopy. But they are found on this island only, and a couple of little tiny islands surrounding it. They have no woodpeckers on that island. So there’s nothing to compete for that. Being an island, it’s probably never had a whole lot of different options for protein and that sort of thing. There are great big grubs that burrow into the trees. If we want to make at least a story reconstruction, it’s that they are going after these grubs in the trees. No other bird is going after those grubs in the trees because there are no woodpeckers to compete with. So Christian Rutz and others in England have estimated that six of these grubs will do them for a day of good protein.
Speaker 1 [00:51:40] Wow.
Speaker 2 [00:51:41] So there’s a lot of selection pressure for them to be able to get those grubs. As for the the tools that they make; they use either specially broken little branches and twigs, or they rip the hooked edges of pandanus leaves so that they have a long strip with little hooks along the edge. They just nip, nip, rip. Very carefully, and they stick those in and these grubs are defensive and they raise up and grab at the hooks or at the twig that’s coming down after them. Allowing them to pull up.
Speaker 1 [00:52:24] That’s incredibly intelligent, to figure that out.
Speaker 2 [00:52:27] Yeah. We know that it’s been going on for a long time because not only do they make those tools, it takes them quite a long while to get really good at it. So we know that this is not just some sort of automatic thing.
Speaker 1 [00:52:44] This is not some kind of genetically programed behavior. This is something that they learn from each other, to some extent.
Speaker 2 [00:52:51] Yeah, and they hang around with their parents and their parents apparently leave tools prominently in places where the youngsters could use them. On the flip side, it looks like they’ve been using it long enough that the tool use has also become so intrinsic that it has selected for a biology, for a morphology that allows better tool use. For example, the eye position on the head. Imagine you have a bill and you’re trying to hold a stick or a little piece of pandanus leaf to go down into a hole.
Speaker 1 [00:53:34] Mm.
Speaker 2 [00:53:35] You’ve got to watch what you’re doing. So you’ve got to hop, but you want to hold it so that you could control it out the front of your bill.
Speaker 1 [00:53:43] Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:53:44] So if you have a hook over your bill as many birds do, including our American crows and whatnot, you can’t. You’ve got to stick it out the side. Their bills are modified to be like pliers.
Speaker 1 [00:53:58] Wow. To not have a little hook
Speaker 2 [00:54:01] It’s just straight out the front. There’s no hook. It’s just like a pair of straight pliers, and they can then hold that in a way that no other crow would be able to hold it.
Speaker 1 [00:54:14] That is so cool.
Speaker 2 [00:54:17] So the other really cool thing, which I love, is that they are really, really drawn to tools. Human kids, if you put them out in the yard, they’re going to pick up sticks and stones and they’re going to throw them and bonk them and things right? You don’t have to tell them to do that. Young New Caledonian crows, if you leave sticks around, they are inordinately attracted to them and they will try to stick them in things.
Speaker 1 [00:54:49] Wow. OK, so it is partially built into them genetically at this point, but not entirely. They still have to learn it.
Speaker 2 [00:54:57] It’s like culture has wrapped around and put more selection on the whole neural capacity of these animals.
Speaker 1 [00:55:07] But we can imagine so easily how that happened in this animal, because it’s on an island and because there is a particular food to look for. Like you say, we can imagine how the culture wrapped around the genetics, and it became both things at once. Just you explaining that makes a really clear model of that in my head. But I’m like, ‘Oh, that must apply to humans as well in so many other ways,’ when you talk about, say, language. Simultaneously, we have a genetic or neurological capacity for language, but we also learn it and it’s also flexible and x y z and then we have a million things like that, but it’s like, ‘Oh, this is an example of how we learn too, very obviously.’ Right?
Speaker 2 [00:55:52] Yep, exactly. It gets called ‘gene culture coevolution’ by some of my colleagues. If you’re a highly cultural animal, your culture modifies your environment and selects for other attributes that we would consider more, I don’t know, biological or physical in some sense.
Speaker 1 [00:56:18] So this just makes me think that there’s lots of science fiction stories about – I think a lot of people imagine humans die out well, maybe one day dolphins will learn to talk and start building stuff. And I would add crows to that list of the animal that might supplant us. I mean, there’s so much going on there that is so fascinating.
Speaker 2 [00:56:40] I think that one of the interesting questions that people have raised about animals moving into urban areas is whether those species which are most successful at doing so, have those attributes. They might not be direct tool users but they had that learning based capacity for cultural shifts, which then allow them to kind of recreate and make a new form of existence; which may itself select on them. That’s one of the things we need to discover more about. But that’s one of the hypotheses: that animals that move readily into living around us, surviving with us, tend to be large brained and long lived social learners.
Speaker 1 [00:57:36] Like dogs.
Speaker 2 [00:57:38] Dogs, coyotes and even rats.
Speaker 1 [00:57:44] Yeah. Oh, that’s true. Rats are very intelligent and very social. That’s wow – I never thought of that before. Cats too. I mean, cats live in big colonies. I don’t want to call them large brained (I have a very poor opinion of cats). No, I’m just kidding around.
Speaker 2 [00:58:02] Coyote’s are wonderful examples.
Speaker 1 [00:58:04] Yeah, they’re extremely smart and social, and anyone who’s been stalked by a coyote can absolutely feel that way. Like ‘It’s following me and looking at me.’
Speaker 2 [00:58:16] ‘And watching and wondering what I’m going to do with that piece of hot dog in my hand.’
Speaker 1 [00:58:24] Wow, that’s amazing. How can folks (we have to wrap it up) who are curious about this sort of thing learn more about crows? And also, do you recommend – I’m fascinated by crows. I have a rooftop. Should I start leaving peanuts out and trying to attract the crows in my neighborhood? Is this a good idea or a bad idea if I want to learn more about crows and make crow friends? Or will they not leave me alone ever again?
Speaker 2 [00:58:50] From my perspective, I think that leaving peanuts outdoors is fine. I would not overdo it. I would want to make sure that you’re attracting some crows and that you’re not becoming the focus of a murder.
Speaker 1 [00:59:05] Murder, a murder of crows. Yeah. Don’t forget, you get a lot of crows together. It’s a murder.
Speaker 2 [00:59:11] That’s right. That’s what they say, because obviously you have neighbors and not everybody lives crows.
Speaker 1 [00:59:24] ‘Oh my god, don’t move in next door to this guy. He’s the crow man.’
Speaker 2 [00:59:28] That’s right. That’s right. I have friends who’ve had that problem, and also as I walk around people ask me, ‘What are you looking at?’ Because I have binoculars. This is Ithaca, New York. There’s the Cornell lab of ornithology here. There are people interested in birds all over. You say, ‘Oh, I’m looking at crows’ and their faces fall and they go, ‘Oh, I was hoping it was a warbler of something’ or something like that coming through. But then you meet the people who say, ‘I hate crows.’ I remember one conversation which kind of epitomizes all of this in which they said, ‘Oh, I hate crows,’ and we got into this little discussion. She said, ‘I don’t like them because they’re so loud, they’re always in groups and they’re up and down the street all the time.’ I finally said to her, ‘You know, you hate crows because there’s so much like people.’ She looked at me and she said, ‘Yes.’
Speaker 1 [01:00:31] That is incredible. Anne, thank you so much for joining us and blowing my mind so much with all this incredible crow information. Where can folks find out more about you and your work?
Speaker 2 [01:00:42] Well. I’m not as easily found as as one would hope, but I’m certainly open to emails.
Speaker 1 [01:00:50] Just go to the woods in the winter and there you’ll be.
Speaker 2 [01:00:52] Right. You can find my contact information at the website for Binghamton University in Biological Sciences. I have lots of students who are also happy to talk about their work, our papers are mostly professional. But I have dreams of writing a big crow book in the next few years.
Speaker 1 [01:01:24] I hope you do. In the meantime, you also have a website: crowroosts.org which people can check out, right?
Speaker 2 [01:01:29] Yes, yes. Although it’s not as well kept up as it should be.
Speaker 1 [01:01:33] Well, Anne, thank you so much for being here. Thank you. I can’t thank you enough.
Speaker 2 [01:01:38] Sure thing. This has been a pleasure, Adam, and I hope your crows find you.
Speaker 1 [01:01:43] I hope they do, too. I want nothing more than that. Well, thank you once again to Anne Clark for coming on the show. I hope you enjoyed that interview as much as I did if you did. Just remember, you can support the show by going to our special bookshop at factuallypod.com/books. That’s factuallypod.com/books and buying a book by one of our incredible guests (or by anybody else while you’re there) gives us a little referral revenue, and it does help support the show. I want to thank our producers, Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman and our engineer, Ryan Connor. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode for you on. You can find me online @adamconover or at adamconover.net. Until next week, we’ll see you next time on Factually. Thank you so much for listening.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books