Walking through a high school campus just before lunchtime, I noticed four crows busily searching for scraps of food lying in the grass. One lucky bird had found a particularly large morsel and was enjoying its meal bonanza. Then, one by one, the other three lifted off and vacated the grounds to perch on the nearby building, staring down at their feasting friend. At that moment, the lunch bell rang, and the final crow abandoned his jackpot without hesitation and joined his companions on the roof, moments before the students came streaming into the area, hungrily searching out their own meals.It is easy to write this off as coincidence and anthropomorphization. Yet, Gifts of the Crow, a 2012 book by scientist John Marzluff and natural historian Tony Angell, presents evidence that crows, ravens, and other corvids are nowhere near as birdbrained as some would expect. They may have the ability to understand timing, plan ahead, and solve complex problems. They seem to play, scheme, purposely annoy other animals, and take large risks. In short, where many cultures and mythologies portray crows and other corvids as tricksters, the work of Marzluff and Angell lends research-based support to that archetype.
According to Lewis Hyde, author of Trickster Makes this World, trickster mythology “begins with a being whose main concern is getting fed and it ends with the same being grown mentally swift.” This description of a mythological character seems to fit crows quite well. Lewis presents a trickster archetype driven by meals, one who schemes, steals, sets traps, gets caught in traps, speaks cleverly, dwells in all worlds, has overactive bowels, and speaks eloquently. In American Indian Trickster Tales, Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz describe the trickster as a being who “combines in his nature the sacredness and sinfulness, grand gestures and pettiness, strength and weakness, joy and misery,” a complex character marked by intelligence and selfishness. In many ways, the crow and corvid research reported by Marzluff and Angell reflect in real life the common aspects of the mythological trickster.
One of the most common aspects of the trickster is the being’s intelligence and ability to scheme. Trickster tales are full of animals creating schemes and outwitting rather than overpowering their enemies, as are tales of European trickster gods. Odin, sometimes associated with the tricksters, has his two ravens Huginn and Muninn (thought and memory — qualities associated with tricksters). Even the modern Marvel Universe films feature an ambiguously sinister Loki, friendly when it suits his goals, who is constantly plotting to raise his status or escape a difficult situation.
Marzluff and Angell present research and narratives that demonstrate these qualities in corvids. They compare the 1.9 percent of body mass occupied by the human brain to the 1.4 percent in ravens and the impressive 2.7 percent in the New Caledonian crow. They state that the corvid brain is “on par with similar-size mammals, not birds” and is “similar in size to that of a small monkey” (p. 32). The authors also note the large size of a particular portion of a crow’s brain- the part which allows it to process a large number of sensory information simultaneously.
Size is less important than how it is used. Like mythological tricksters, crows are able to use their large brains wisely. Marzuff and Angell describe a series of experiments meant to discover true mental insight in corvids. While crows are able to solve problems to obtain food, it is difficult to separate true cognitive planning from a more garden variety response to reinforcement seen in many animals. When a raven uses a string to pull food, but can see the food coming closer, that sight acts as reinforcement to continue, not an example of planning. Most animals can do that. But these researchers show that crows are able to solve complex, three-step puzzles, no individual step of which was immediately reinforcing, to obtain food. These trials demonstrate that Trickster-like ability to think and plan beyond the current situation.
Another example of the cognition necessary to plan ahead is one of the more stunning naturalistic observations about wild crows. As a line of cars waited to board a ferry across Puget Sound, Angell observed crows fishing for small clams at low tide. Unable to crack the clam shells themselves, the birds would drop them onto the road directly in front of the waiting cars. Eventually, the cars rolled forward to board the ferry, running over the clams and cracking their shells in the process. An easy, pre-planned meal now awaited the patient crows. Angell suggests that this observation demonstrates a crow’s ability to plan ahead and understand timing (p. 100).
Breaking the Rules
Tricksters are legendary for not following the rules. Mythologies portray them as thieves and rogues, often paying the price of their delinquency themselves. Marzluff and Angell show this same tendency in the corvids they have studied.
They tell the story of Hitchcock, a raven observed by National Park rangers in the Cascade Mountains using his beak to tear the rubber from windshield wipers on a daily basis. He had also torn screens from cabin doors and “regularly whitewashed” the park’s visitor center with a “messy calling card” (p. 100). Other crows and ravens have been observed to steal other items that have no food value, from cigarettes to ladies’ underwear.
In other cases, corvids have been shown to antagonize other animals, just as trickster gods often antagonize their fellow deities. They have been known to pull the tails of dogs, getting their attention just long enough to fly in and steal the food in their bowls.
Related to rule-breaking is the very trickster-like quality of taking risks. Large groups of crows have been known to dive-bomb, and even kill, eagles. Eagles are much larger predators who could easily take out a single raven or crow. Crows have been known to approach dogs and owls for play, and even harry wild wolves, trying to get the predators to lunge at them. These actions are fun, but rife with danger to the corvid.
Tricksters often get in trouble for their delinquency and the risks they take. Hitchcock had to be captured and submitted to aversive conditioning to train him to associate windshield wiper blades and, in fact, the entire visitor center he regularly terrorized, with unpleasant consequences. He was later released and rarely landed in the same area again. Sometimes there is a price to be paid for the transgressions of the trickster.
Tricksters like to have fun. So do crows and other corvids. It can be difficult to accurately identify play behavior in animals without imposing human interpretation onto it. What appears to be play to a human observer may actually be a mating ritual or a method for establishing social status. Marzluff and Angell take pains to use a scientific definition of “play” that separates play behaviors from other behaviors. The five-part definition dictates that the behavior is unnecessary for survival, voluntary and pleasurable, typical actions done in novel ways, repeated often, and occur when the animal is not under stress.
Under this definition, they document ravens “windsurfing” with slabs of tree bark in their talons. Ravens “sled” down snow banks and purposely hurl themselves into updrafts, riding the wind back to the rooftop they came from. One raven liked to annoy captive turkeys by pulling their tails through a fence, while a crow played with a cat by dragging a string in front of it. Related to their risk-taking behaviors, these instances of playing show a very social side to these birds, another common element of trickster, such as Hermes, who are often associated with language and social activity.
One of the most impressive aspects of trickster beings in mythology is their ability to live in all worlds and thrive in any situation, no matter how dangerous. Trickster deities are often psychopomps who travel between realms or gifted linguists who can use their language to escape any dangerous situation. Animals associated with the trickster are often similar; they are able to survive in the wild, in captivity, in urban landscapes, and in suburban neighborhoods. They adapt easily and never limit themselves to one response. Their diversity and intelligence helps them survive.
Crows and other corvids exemplify these mythological qualities in the real world. Their impressive brains allow them to determine the best survival option in any situation. Their ability to plan ahead ensures that they are prepared for future uncertainty and long winters. Simply the fact that they have the leisure time to play separates them from many other animals who seem to always be on a quest for food, shelter, and reproduction. Intelligent and crafty, these birds truly are amazing animals.
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