Updated: Jul 29, 2020
Without the benefits of verbal language, many social species communicate with each other. Often with more clarity! We humans are very proud of our language as a "sophisticated and superior form" of communication. Yet, words can lie. Words can cause harm. Miscommunications often occur. Perhaps we can learn something from animals about how clear, effective, and accurate their communication methods seem to be. There is a certain lack of ambiguity to body language -- to vocal sounds whose meanings are crystal clear to each other.
As we now understand, verbal language, as we humans know it, is just one channel or modality for communicating. This allows us to start to understand there are other ways to express thoughts, feelings, intentions, and desires. As we open our minds to non-language possibilities, we begin to crack the animal communication code. One species that is challenging us to understand sophisticated non-language communication is the way that crows communicate with each other.
John Marzluff, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Forest Resources, conducted an experiment with the help of his colleagues, in which they wore unique masks as they trapped, branded and released 7-15 birds at various study sites near Seattle. The released birds immediately scolded the mask wearer. Hearing the racket, other crows joined, forming an angry mob.
Crows, even those who had not directly been through the trapping and releasing process "memorized" the mask, and could remember it for their lifetime. This study was reported in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and is one example that demonstrates how language is not a prerequisite for learning, memory, planning, or consciousness.
When the researchers later put on the same caveman mask and traveled to different areas, crows that were never captured immediately recognized the "dangerous face." This suggests that these birds learned through social means, and not as a result of direct experience. Both relatives and unrelated crows joined in the harsh-call scolding and mobbing of the person wearing the caveman mask, which could occur over a mile away from the original incident. This memory of the caveman mask not only increases in population over time but babies born "know this" without any direct experience.
How did this "information transfer occur" when there was no direct experience for the new crows? Perhaps it is due to their complex language of calls that can communicate to other crows and deliver information. Crows learn from each other. But how do we explain that newborn babies, who never saw the mask, also understand that this mask-wearer is a dangerous person? Watch this video of John Marzluff showing how they respond to the mask wearer.
Crows in the wild live 20-30 years and learn from each other. This means that they don't have to make every mistake themselves; they can learn from the mistakes of others. And they can also imitate innovation that they see other crows do, such as not only using tools but modifying them to fit a novel situation.
The Genius of Crows
Crows dream, and since their brain is separated into left and right, one side can sleep while the other side considers new actions, makes plans, creates new songs. Just like humans, they play and get endorphin rushes from such things as "surfing" with wood planks as they fly. They take calculated risks by evaluating their environment. This video shows an example of how magpies, one of the families of corvids, can "train humans" to do what they want us to do. And how they hold grudges and will poop on a specific person's car that they don't like. To learn more about the brains of crows, watch this Ted Talk with the researcher, John Marzluff.
Hopefully, recognizing the complex brain of corvids will help you appreciate them more. We now have to use the term "bird brain" as a compliment, as they are quite sophisticated. Here's wishing you empathic and joyful experiences as you encounter the crows and ravens in the world. Say hello from me.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection