Why the crow smiles

There’s hardly a corvid species that doesn’t strike me as beautiful but there’s only one that’s always struck me as particularly gleeful.  Looking at the New Caledonian crow it’s evident there’s something different about the shape and proportions of its bill. It’s a bit shorter and more blunt, and it lacks the obvious downward curve of a typical crow bill, with lower mandible actually curving slightly up. Put together, these features appear to give it the perpetual grin that trademarks this species.  I’ve joked that this must be because they’re always feeling very pleased with themselves for being so smart, and thanks to new research, I’ve come to learn my joke had it backwards.

By using tomography scans, Hiroshi Matsui and his team were able to compare the shape and structure of the NC crow’s bill with that of its close relatives. Their conclusion, which they report in the March issue of Scientific Reports, is that this shape makes the handling and manufacturing of tools easier. Looking at photos of the birds in action, it feels intuitive that the more exaggerated curve of a raven or American crow bill would have a hard time achieving the dexterity that NC crows need to use their stick and hook tools.


Given this new research it’s time to amend my joke. It’s not that NC crows grin because they’re smart, they’re smart because they grin.

Literature cited

  1.  Matsui, H., Hunt, G., Oberhofer, K., Ogihara, N., McGowen, K., Mithraratne, K., Yamasaki, T., Grey, R., and Izawa, E. 2016.  Adaptive bill morphology for enhanced tool manipulation in New Caledonian crows.  Scientific Reports 6. doi:10.1038/srep22776


Filed under Crow behavior, crow intelligence, Crow life history, New Research

9 responses to “Why the crow smiles

  1. kris0723

    Hi Kaeli! I love the side by side photos of the NC and regular crow. Both are so beautiful! I was wondering what are the white little dots/things/spots on the beaks of some crows.

    • Hi Kris, do you mean in this photo or is this something you see regularly? In this photo GO had some peanut bits stuck to her bill (she was more cooperative for photos after she got her treats). That might also be what you’re seeing on other occasions too. Leucism and albanism can discolor bills but it’s usually not spotty like you describe. Do you have any photos as examples?

      • kris0723

        Hi Kaeli, I see it pretty regularly and it looks like the same as what was on GO’s bill. Thank you for answering my question! I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was food or some type of parasite or ? I was hoping it wasn’t parasites or anything harmful. I am sure I have some photos in my iPhoto library. Can I post them here? I will look up leucism and albanism. Thank you so much!

  2. I love these majestic, smart and beautiful birds. They get a bad rap. I always go out of my way to help them, and they remember me for years when I go back to places where I did so.

  3. Dan Fisher

    So, having a flock of 4-5 crows in my back yard and hanging around the feeders is a good thing? Do they chase the other birds away? This spring they are policing my yard for little branches as nest Material, I suspect.

    • Hi Dan. Well whether or not it’s a thing you value or not is up to you. Many people would consider it a good thing because they enjoy watching crows, whereas others would not because they find their behaviors annoying. It’s an entirely natural thing, however. They will not chase the other birds away, but, like other predators they will eat eggs or fledglings if they get the opportunity. This is often a source of great distress for the backyard birder but this is a totally normal and ok thing to be happening. Just like it’s a totally normal and ok thing when your crow’s nest gets eat by a different kind of predator! (And really if you want to bemoan much more consequential and non-natural nest predators you should turn your attention towards cats which kill billions of birds a year). Sounds like they are in the early stages of nest building. If they’re getting branches from your yard it’s unlikely (but possible) they’re nesting in it though. In my experience they go about half a block from where their nest tree is to actually collect material. It will probably wind up in the neighbor’s tree.

      • Dan

        Thanks for your reply. I’ll watch them more and shout less. An owl once was disabled by power wires in our yard and they relentlessly dove on him. A real ruckus until the raptor center arrived to remove the owl. We do have a neighbor’s cat prowling in the area so thanks for that bit of info.

  4. Pingback: Other than tentacles and jointed digits, what methods of holding items are there that provide similar dexterity? – Website Information

  5. Dan Garrett

    Great article Kaeli,, Cheers

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