Category Archives: Crow behavior

Crows are watching your language, literally

That crows can recognize humans faces (and other physical attributes) has been a staple of our experiences with them for thousands of years.  It’s part of what has allowed them to take such a prominent place within our cultures, and it’s what keeps us refilling our pockets with peanuts or kibble, anxious for the chance to be recognized, to be seen by a wild animal. If, like me, you’ve been committed to such a relationship, you probably found yourself wondering about what it is they’re saying all the time. Although we still have more questions than answers, it’s not for lack of trying; in fact parsing crow “language” is still a hot topic in corvidology.  But for all our efforts to understand what crows are so often going on about, have you ever thought much about what they make of what we’re saying?

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Calling American crow

Ask any crow feeder about their ritual and there’s a good chance that it starts with more than just making themselves visible. To get “their” bird’s attention, about half of crow feeders start with some kind of auditory cue, like a whistle or gentle name calling.¹ Given that American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) can be individually distinguished by their calls, and many corvids—including the large-billed crows (Corvus macrorhynchos)—can recognize familiar conspecific* calls, this strategy seems far from superstitious.2,3 In fact, previous work has demonstrated that crows can discriminate human voices.

When presented with playback of their caretakers or unfamiliar speakers saying, “hey,”  hand-reared carrions crows (Corvus corone) showed significantly more responsiveness towards unfamiliar speakers.4 That their response is different is what suggests that they can discriminate, but it’s hard to not do a double take at the fact that the thing they seem more interested in is the person they don’t know.  Shouldn’t they be more interested in the folks that generally come bearing gifts? While we still don’t have a super satisfying answer to this question, it’s possible this comes from the fact that novel humans are less predictable, and therefore more threatening, than a familiar caretaker who can be safely ignored. Likewise, a new study out suggests that it’s not just individual people crows can hear the difference between, but entire languages.

In a newly released study conducted by Schalz and Izawa (2020), eight wild large-billed crows were captured in major cities around Japan and subsequently housed in aviaries at Keio University where they were cared for by fluent Japanese speakers.5  Given both their life histories and their time in the aviary, it’s safe to assume these birds had listened to a tremendous amount of Japanese throughout their lives. So, it stands to reason they might be able to actually recognize this language as familiar, but to date no one had looked at crows’ ability to discriminate between languages.  To test this question the researchers used playback to present recordings from multiple unfamiliar Dutch or Japanese speakers.  As with the carrion crow study, when these crows were presented with playback of a more familiar acoustic style—in this case a Japanese speaker—they didn’t show a strong reaction. Play them what was likely a completely unfamiliar language—Dutch—and the crows were rapt. Or at least they acted more vigilant and positioned themselves closer to the speaker. In other words, large-billed crows were able to discriminate between human languages without any prior training!

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Large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) Photo: Anne Kurasawa

The next most obvious question is, well, why? What purpose would it serve to discriminate between different languages among unfamiliar speakers? One possibility is that it’s just an artifact of the auditory perceptual skills they need to successfully be a crow.  As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of information encoded in their calls, including individual identity, so being attentive to rhythmic classes may be important.  Another reason that’s worth pursuing, though, is that it may help tip them off to tourists, who may be more inclined to share or easier to take advantage of, than locals.  Fortunately the lead author on this study, Sabrina Schalz, will be starting her PhD on this topic in the coming fall. You can find her on twitter at @Sabrinaschalz, where she’s promised to keep us abreast of her future discoveries.

So the next time you’re hanging out in Japan, don’t forget to literally watch your language around the local crows. And to be safe, I wouldn’t divulge any secrets to them either.  They’re not called large-billed crows for nothing.

*conspecific=member of the same species

Literature cited
1. Marzluff JM, & Miller M. (2014). Crows and crow feeders: Observations on interspecific semiotics.  In: Witzany, G. ed., Biocommunication of Animals.  New York: Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. pp 191-211.

2. Mates EA, Tarter RR, Ha JC, Clark AB & McGowan KJ. (2015). Acoustic profiling in a complexly social species, the American crow: caws encode information on caller sex, identity and behavioural context, Bioacoustics, 24:1, 63-80, DOI: 10.1080/09524622.2014.933446

3. Kondo N, Izawa EI, & Watanabe S. (2010). Perceptual mechanism for vocal individual recognition in jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos): contact call signature and discrimination. Behaviour 147: 1051–1072.

4. Washer CAF, Szipka G, Boeckle M, and Wilkinson A. 2012. You sounds familiar: carrion crows differentiate between the calls of known and unknown heterospecifics. Anim Cogn 15: 1015-1019.

5. Schalz S. & Izawa E. (2020). Language Discrimination by Large-Billed Crows. In Ravignani, A., Barbieri, C., Martins, M., Flaherty, M., Jadoul, Y., Lattenkamp, E., Little, H., Mudd, K. & Verhoef, T. (Eds.): The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 13th International Conference (EvoLang13). doi:10.17617/2.3190925.

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Filed under Crow behavior, Crows and humans, New Research, Science

The definitive guide for distinguishing American crows & common ravens

For two birds that are surprisingly far apart on the family tree, American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common ravens (Corvus corax) can be awfully hard to distinguish, especially if you rarely see both together.  But with the right tools and a little practice you can most certainly develop the skill.  Fortunately, there are many different types of clues you can use to tell one from the other, so feel free to use the links to skip around to what interests you.

Physical Differences

Although crows and ravens are superficially quite similar, there are variety of features that can be used to tell one from the other. Overall size can be a good place to start.  This especially helpful if you live in an area where they overlap, but even if you don’t, I find that people who are used to seeing crows take notice when they see a raven in person because it feels ~aggressively~ large.  That’s because ravens, by mass, are about twice the size of an American crow.

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A common raven specimen (top) with an American crow specimen (bottom). On average, ravens are about twice as big as crows, but individually there are certainly large crows and diminutive ravens.

This size difference becomes most obvious is when you look at their face.  Raven’s are much more adapted for consuming carrion than crows are (crows cannot break through the skin of a squirrel) and their bills give the distinct impression that they could, in fact, pluck your eyes from your face with little effort. So if your sense of things is that you’re looking at a bill with a bird attached, then you’re probably looking at a raven, not a crow.

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With practice, judging the proportion of crows’ and ravens’ features, like bill size, becomes easier.

Crow vs. raven measuremntsWith practice, judging relative size becomes easier and more reliable, but for a beginner it may not be useful because it’s so subjective.  Instead, it’s easier to look at the field marks (birder speak for distinctive features) which provide more objective clues.

When looking at perched birds, the most helpful attribute is to look at the throat.  Ravens have elongated throat feathers called hackles, which they can articulate for a variety of behavioral displays.  Crows meanwhile have smooth, almost hair like throat feathers typical of other songbirds.

Crow v raven

Even when the feathers are relaxed, the textural differences between the two species throat feathers are apparent. Note that in this photo, the crown feathers of the crow are erect, while the raven’s is not.  The difference in crown shape should not therefor be judged in this comparison.

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When vocalizing or displaying the raven’s hackles become especially obvious.

In addition to the hackles, ravens can also articulate some of their other facial feathers in way crows cannot.  During threat displays for example, ravens will fluff out both the throat hackles and their “ear” tufts.

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For birds in flight, however, it’s often difficult—if not impossible—to clearly see the throat feathers.  Fortunately, the tail offers a reliable field mark in this case.  Whereas crows have a more squared or rounded tail (depending on how much they’ve fanned the feathers) a raven’s tail will have a distinct wedge shape. Additionally, although they are a bit more subtle, there are also some differences in the primary wing feathers.  While both birds have 10 primary feathers, in flight, ravens will look like they have four main “finger” feathers while crows will appear to have five. Ravens also have more slender, pointed primaries relative to crows.

crow vs raven

Vocal differences

With a little practice American crows and common ravens can easily be distinguished by their calls.  The call of a raven can be best described as a deep, hollow croak.  Crows on the other hand, caw.  Of course, they can both make at dozens of other sounds including rattles, knocks, coos, clicks, and imitations. With practice even these can be recognized by species, but that level of detail is not necessary for most identification purposes.

Juvenile common raven yell (Recording by Antonio Xeira-Chippewa County, Michigan)
Common raven water sound (Recording by Niels Krabbe-Galley Bay, British Columbia)
American crow call (Recording by David Vander Pluym-King County, Wasington)
American crow juvenile begging call (Recording by Jonathon Jongsma Minneapolis, Minnesota)
American crow rattle (Recording by Thomas Magarian-Portland, Oregon)
American crow wow call (Recording by Loma Pendergraft King County, Washington)
American crow scolding (Recording by Kaeli Swift-King County Washington)

Geographic/habitat differences

While both American crows and common ravens have wide distributions across North America, there are some key differences in where you are likely to find them.  The most notable difference is that ravens are absent throughout most of the midwest and the southeast.  Crows on the other hand, occupy most American states with the exception of the southwestern part of the country.  The below maps from Cornell’s All About Birds website offer more specific breakdowns (hover over the images to see the caption). Note that the reason the American crow’s west coast range appears to dry up from the Puget Sound north is not due to a lack of crows, but rather because the crow species that occupies the upper half of the North American west coast is not the American crow, but the northwestern crow (Corvus caurinus).  The continued distinction between these two “species” is likely coming to a close, however.  For more on our current understanding of the differences (or lack thereof) between those two species check here.

With respect to habitat, both birds are considered generalists, with ravens erring more towards what one might describe as an “extreme generalist”. Ravens can be found along the coast, grasslands, mountains (even high altitude mountains), forests, deserts, Arctic ice floes, and human settlements including agricultural areas, small rural towns, urban cities (particularly in California) and near campgrounds, roads, highways and transfer stations. Crows meanwhile are more firm in their requirement of a combo of open feeding areas, scattered trees, and forest edges.  They generally avoid continuous forest, preferring to remain close to human settlements including rural and agricultural areas, cities, suburbs, transfer stations, and golf courses.  In cases where roads or rivers provide access, however, they can be found at high elevation campgrounds.

Behavioral differences

There are books that could be (and have been) written on this subject alone, so we will limit ourselves to what is likely to be most essential for identification purposes.

Migration
While common ravens are residents wherever they are found, American crows are what’s called a “partially migratory species” because some populations migrate while others do not.  Most notably, the northern populations of crows that occupy central Canada during the summer breeding season, travel south to the interior United States once the snow-pack precludes typical feeding behaviors

Breeding
Although trios of ravens are not uncommon, and there have been observations of young from previous years remaining at the nest, ravens are not considered cooperative breeders. Crows are considered cooperative breeders across their entire range (though specific rates vary across populations and not much is known about migratory populations).  If helpers are present they typically have between 1-3. So if a nest is very busy with more than two birds contributing to nest construction, feeding nestlings, or nest defense, it’s more than likely a crow’s nest, not a raven’s.

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Common raven eggs left | American crow eggs right

Diet
Although both species consume a host of invertebrates, crows consume a larger proportion of inverts and garbage relative to ravens.  Mammals, especially from carrion, meanwhile make up the largest proportion of a raven’s diet across surveyed populations.  Access to refuse and population location, however, can dramatically shift the dietary preferences of both these omnivores.

Flight
Because ravens consume a lot more carrion, which is unpredictable in its availability and location, they spend a great deal more soaring than crows do.  So if you see a black bird cruising the sky for more than a few seconds, it’s most likely a raven.  Ravens are also unique from crows in that they barrel roll to advertise their territory.  So if you see a  barrel rolling bird, there’s a better chance it’s a raven.

Interactions
In places where they do overlap, interactions between the two are often antagonistic, with crows acting as the primary aggressors in conflicts.  Ravens will depredate crow nests if given the chance.

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A raven defends itself from a crow by rolling upside down.  Someday I’ll get a better photograph…

Genetic differences

Throughout most of our history, we have used external cues like appearance, voice and behavior, to sort one kind of animal from another.  Now that we have access to a plethora of genetic tools, however, we can ask a new level of the question “what’s the difference between an American crow and a common raven.”

To put it simply, American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common ravens (Corvus corax) are different species in the same genus, just like lions (Panthera leo) and tigers (Panthera tigris).  Species and genus refer to different levels of the taxonomic tree, where species represents the smallest whole unit we classify organisms.  The issue of species can get complicated quickly, however, so I’ll direct you here if you want to learn what a mess it really is.  Most important thing to appreciate now, is that if you want a quick, back of the envelope way to evaluate if two animals are closely related, look at the first part of their latin binomial (scientific) name.  If they share that part then they’re in the same genus (ex: crows and ravens belong to the genus Corvus).  If they don’t (ex: American crow is Corvus brachyrhynchos and the Steller’s jay is Cyanocitta stelleri) then they are more distantly related. 

Within the Corvus genus, however, there is still a ton of evolutionary space available.  In fact, to find the closest shared relative of common ravens and American crows you’d need to go back approximately 7 millions years.  Although they are more visually distinct and don’t overlap geographically, American crows are more closely related to the collard crows of China, or the carrion crows of Europe, than they are to common ravens.

Crow phylogeny

Image from Jønsson et al. 2012

Laws and protections

US laws
In the United States, both American crows and common ravens are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  This means that, like with nearly all native birds species, you cannot kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, transport, or export these birds, or their parts, eggs, and nests, except under the terms of a valid Federal permit. It is this law that prohibits the average person from keeping these birds as pets, and requires that rescued crows be turned over to a licensed professional.  The MBTA also prohibits the civilian hunting of ravens under any circumstance.  Under 50 CFR 20.133, however states are granted an exception for crows, wherein with some restrictions, states can designate regulated hunting seasons.

In addition, under 50 CFR 21.43 of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, you can also kill crows without a license and outside of the regulated hunting season if they are in the act of depredating crops, endangered species, or causing a variety of other destructive issues.  You can obtain the specifics of the Depredation Order here.  Such lethal control must be reported to Fish and Wildlife to remain within the law. No such depredation exceptions exist for ravens. 

Canadian laws
In contrast to the US, no corvids receive federal protections in Canada.  Crows and ravens may receive provincial protections, however.

Concluding thoughts

Before we pack it up, I want to leave you with one last useful piece of information.  This whole article was dedicated to the question of how American crows are different from common ravens.  Hopefully, you’re walking a way with a solid understanding that these animals are in fact different morphologically, behaviorally, and genetically. Asking if American crows are different from common ravens is a different question, though, than asking if “crows” are different than “ravens”.  Because while that first answer is a hard, “yes,” there is no one thing that initially classifies a bird as either a type of raven or a type of crow.  Generally ravens are bigger and have those elongated throat feathers, but there are plenty of crow named birds that could have been named raven and vice versa. So proceed cautiously and consider the specific types of birds the question’s author is referring to before offering specific answers.

If you want to continue to hone your skills I invite you to play #CrowOrNo with me every week on twitter, Instragram and facebook, all at the @corvidresearch handle.  While it’s not to quite this level of detail, I promise it will help advance your ID skills and introduce to to more of the world’s fantastic corvids. For a head start, keep this charming and informative guide illustrated by Rosemary Mosco of Bird and Moon comics handy!

raven vs crow

 

Reference literature
Jønsson K.A., Fabre P.H., and Irestedt, M. (2012).  Brains, tools innovations and biogeography in crows and ravens.  BCM Evolutionary Biology 12
https://bmcevolbiol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2148-12-72

Freeman B.G. and Miller, E.T. (2018).  Why do crows attack ravens? The roles of predation threat, resource competition, and social behavior.  The Auk 135: 857-867

Verbeek, N. A. and C. Caffrey (2020). American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Boarman, W. I. and B. Heinrich (2020). Common Raven (Corvus corax), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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Filed under Birding, Corvid diversity, Crow behavior, Crow curiosities, Raven behavior, Ravens, Taxonomy, Vocalizations, Wildlife

What are crows thinking when they see death?

Full disclosure: I am not actually going to be able to tell you the answer to this question.  But I am going to get you closer than we have ever been before.  At least by my standards.  So now the question is where to begin…

Let’s begin by acknowledging that death means something to crows in a way that it doesn’t seem to mean something to most other animals, at least as far as we’ve recognized. What I mean by this is that crows don’t ignore their dead, they don’t reflexively flee from their dead, and they don’t just go about carrying out undertaking behaviors without a second thought (or a first thought).  They really see their dead and they respond in a variety of ways.  In my previous research, I found that generally, they respond to unfamiliar dead crows by alarm calling, followed by recruitment of other crows to the area to form a raucous group called a mob.  Then they disperse after about 15-30min.

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I’ve found that they do other things as well, like touching the bodies, though this really only happens in the spring.  When they touch them they might gently nudge, peck or even copulate with the crows, though that latter one is exceedingly rare.

Other people have seen more curious things though. Upon listening to my garbled explanation of my studies, my dental hygienist removed her hand from my mouth and proceed to explain, with detectable urgency, that she knew about these funerals.  That when she was a little girl living on her family’s farm her father shot a crow.  Instead of leaving, the others brought sticks and dropped them on their dead flockmate. She’d never forgotten it.

What these stories tell me is that how crows respond to death is complex, and we are still far from fully understanding all their behaviors.  And one of the hardest parts of this is that we can’t ask crows what they are doing.  Why did you leave a stick that one time?  Why did you rip up the body that other time?  Why did you call for 30min minutes until your voice choked out, while your neighbors a quarter mile away looked later at the same body and then left in silence to return to the dumpster?

This barrier means that we stand a high chance of either under or over-interpreting their behaviors around death; for example, being unable to accept that we might experience the grief of death uniquely, or being unable to accept that we, in fact, do not.  This is the challenge in studying how another organism responds to death, and it’s one I grapple with constantly.

There might, however, be one secret weapon into deeper parts of how crows respond to their dead that we can reach without needing a Dr. Doolittle-esque translator:  their brains.  While all animals only have a certain number of ways they can outwardly express themselves, how the brain responds to stimuli can tell you a great deal more about what an animal might be thinking.  Which brings us to my newest paper.1

Now before I go on, I’m going to say up front that I suspect this current study might not sit well with some of my readers. Until now all of my studies have used wild crows and did not require the handling of birds or any kind of direct manipulation.  Spying on the brains of animals, however, is not so hands-off.  It almost always requires surgery. And it’s almost always lethal. I say almost, because sometimes we can actually learn quite a lot without opening up an animal.  Without slicing up its brain. Without keeping it captive forever.  This is one of those times.

Most people are familiar in some capacity with functional neuroimaging, especially fMRI. It’s a way to look at how the brain responds to different stimuli without needing surgery or euthanasia. fMRI works by tracking blood flow while an awake subject encounters a stimulus.  It’s how we have uncovered that psychopaths don’t experience empathy when picturing others in pain, or that some dogs value praise from their owners more than food.2,3 Using fMRI in a non-human animal requires a great deal of training, however because fMRIs are big weird noisy machines that would be objectively terrifying for the uninitiated. Which means that they would never work with a wild crow.  So instead, our team used a different kind of non-invasive imaging technique to spy on the minds of crows: FDG-PET.

Unlike fMRI which tracks real-time blood flow, FDG-PET tracks metabolic activity and most importantly it can do so retroactively.  The FDG in FDG-PET, stands for fluorodeoxyglucose, which is a modified glucose molecule with a radioactive tracer attached to it. It’s the same stuff we give humans when we’re going to PET image them for, say, a tumor.  The modified part is that unlike most glucose, this stuff doesn’t break down, it gets stuck wherever the body used it up.  The tracer on the other hand, does wash out. Still, for a brief window of time-about 20 minutes after injection-we can stimulate an awake animal in a variety of way, visually, acoustically, etc., and the brain will use up the glucose (FDG) in order to process that information. The animal can then be anesthetized and placed into a PET machine where, via a mechanism involving photons and gamma rays that was far too complex for me to bother retaining beyond my graduate exams, the machine can detect the tracer.  The imaging process takes about 20min, after which the bird wakes up, none the wiser for the invasion of privacy.

Crow scanner
An anesthetized crow in our specially fitted PET scanner at the UW Medical Center. The wingtips are bound during the scanning process to keep the feathers tidy and out of harm’s way. Photo by Andy Reynolds for Audubon.

After a lot of image processing and analysis, we can then infer how active a particular area of the brain was while experiencing one stimulus relative to a control.  So while there are some advantages to an fMRI approach, FDG-PET is the only mechanism that allows us to see how a crow’s brain was responding while it was awake and unconstrained 20min ago, instead of while it is strapped down in a big scary scanner.  At the conclusion of the study, each subject is banded and released.  Although our study used only a modest 7 subjects (which is a normal sample size in the imaging world) it brings me great pride to report that, not only did all of our subjects survive, but all left our care with better or equivalent body condition than they came in with.  Some of them have even been resighted successfully breeding in a subsequent season. Again, when it comes to spying on animal brains, this is the exception, not the rule.

Release
My former advisor and coauthor of the current study, John Marzluff, releasing one of the subjects at the conclusion of the study. Photo by Andy Reynolds for Audubon.

So now that some of the technical details are out of the way let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about what we actually learned from all this.  Our lab has previously used this method to understand what neural circuits process different faces, like familiar friendly or dangerous faces, as well as how crows perceive different kinds of threats.  But on the heels of my fieldwork looking at their responses to dead crows,  we wanted to know more about what was going on in their brains.  So we had a two stimulus paradigm: a visual one where we compared brain activity between when crows saw a dead, unfamiliar crow, and a dead, unfamiliar, song sparrow (the control), and an auditory one, where we played them recordings of wild, unfamiliar crows reacting to dead crows, and unfamiliar crows begging (the control).

To aid with our analysis we selected 5 particular brain areas a priori, which means before the study, to examine for brain activity.  These sites included the hippocampus and striatum, which are responsible for fear and spatial learning, the septum and amgydala, which aid with social behaviors, conspecific recognition and affect, and the NCL or nidopallium caudolaterale, which is responsible for executive decision making like our prefrontal cortex.

Among the visual paradigm, what we found was that between the threatening (dead crow) and control groups (dead song sparrow and responses from three birds in a previous study that saw only an empty room) there weren’t a ton of differences in relative brain activity.  Crows that saw a dead crow didn’t show more activity in the regions associated with affect, social behaviors or fear learning.  Instead, what we found is that, like when they see a familiar threat like a hawk, it’s their executive center that shows the most difference.4  At first this was a surprise, but given the number of ways they can respond to their dead, and possibly because they didn’t know this bird, it makes sense that they might be wondering exactly what they should do in that moment.  In case you are tempted to think that might be what’s going anytime they’re in this strange situation, know that a previous study using the same approach found very different neurological responses to when they see familiar threats, new threats, and friendly people.4  So there’s no reason to suspect that the protocol alone is what was responsible for NCL activity.

With respect to the auditory tests, we detected even fewer differences.  The most notable finding was that both kinds of calls, alarm and begging, stimulated NCL activity relative to the birds that saw only an empty room.  I can’t pretend to know exactly what this means.  But it does bode well for my idea that crow communication is quite complex and context dependent, therefore requiring a great deal of brain power to decipher and interpret.  But I speculate.

So, as I said, while this study in no way provided definitive answers to, “What are crows thinking when they see death?,” it’s gotten us as close as we have ever come and given us some good ideas for what might be going on.  But as with all science, the first study is the one warranting most skepticism.  I have no doubt we will continue to learn much more in future and I can’t wait to see where this study fits into the vast field of knowledge that awaits us.

If you would like to read this study in its entirety (which is full of extra details, analysis, and explanation) check out this link, which will remain active until April 15th, 2020.  After that, shoot me an email if you want the PDF, I am more than happy to pass it along.  If you would like to read the popular science article from the Audubon where many of these photos were sourced, but that came out before this study was released, follow this link.

Literature cited
1. Swift KN, MarzlufF JM, Tempteton CN, Shimizu T, and Cross DJ. (2020). Brain activity underlying American crow processing of encounters with dead conspecifics. Behavioural Brain Research 385: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2020.11254

2. Decety J, Chen C, Harenski C, Kiehl K. (2013). An fMRI study of affective perspective taking in individuals with psychopathy: imagining another in pain does not evoke empathy. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00489


3. Cook PF, Prichard A, Spivak M, Berns G. (2016). Awake canine fMRI predicts dogs’ preference for praise vs. food. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 11: 1853-1862


4. Cross DJ, Marzluff JM, Palmquist I, Minoshima S, Shimizu T, Miyaoke R. (2013). Distinct neural circuits underlie assessment of a diversity of natural dangers by American crows, Proc R SocB 280: 1–8

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Filed under Being a scientist, Cognition, Crow behavior, Death, Graduate Research, New Research, Science

Dumpster diving is giving crows higher cholesterol—but does it matter?

Whether it’s from actively watching crows, or simply just existing in a city, we’ve all seen it: the overflowing garbage bin with fat-stained wrappers littered at its base, and the crows snapping up each bit of leftover junk like spilled money.  Cheetos, cheeseburgers, fries, nuggets, chips, or pizza, they will devour basically anything fatty and salty with absolute glee.  This behavior is so canonically crow that it’s stapled into our contemporary imagery of these birds.  Take this 12ft statue called “Crow with Fries” by artist Peter Reiquam.

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Photo c/o salishsea

I’d wager that most people don’t think about this behavior beyond simply finding it amusing or annoying, but I suspect that if you describe yourself as crow lover, naturalist, or bird watcher, you’ve been struck with the same thought as me: “This stuff is called junk food for a reason—it’s bad for you.  What’s it doing to these birds?”

Given that anthropogenic foods can account for as much as 65% of an urban crow’s diet, it seems essential to understand what a diet derived from regularly feasting at McDonalds might do to an animal with 0.7% the body mass of a typical human.1  Unfortunately, we could do little more than shrug and speculate as to its effects.  The data for a more informed understanding just didn’t exist.  That is, until today.

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A new study published in The Condor by Dr. Andrea Townsend et al. examines the relationship between urbanization, junk food, and the body conditions of crows.2  To conduct this study, her team blood sampled 140 wild crow nestlings along an urban to rural gradient.  They found that plasma blood cholesterol levels increased in correlation with the amount of impervious surface, which is a typical way we measure urbanization.  This finding suggests that crows in the city have more access to high cholesterol foods and they make haste in gobbling it up.

Correlation is not causation, however, so to confirm this, they ran an additional supplementation study where they provided 10 rural crow parents with 3 McDonalds cheeseburgers 5-6 days a week, and then looked at how their nestling’s blood cholesterol levels compared with unsupplemented nestlings from the same area. They found that eating cheeseburgers most days of the week had a demonstrable effect on the subject’s cholesterol levels.  While this finding may not be raising any eyebrows, the actual logistics of carrying out a study that required buying hundreds of cheeseburgers each week, and sometimes in one order, certainly did.  In one of their more memorable attempts, Hannah Staab called to place an order for 125 pickle-less cheeseburgers, a request to which McD’s staff replied, “Sure, we’ll get right on that.”  When she arrived several hours later to pick them up, however, they hadn’t made any, having been convinced that the call was a prank.  The peculiarities of urban fieldwork never falter.

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So far, these findings tell us little more than what most people could have probably intuited, but they were crucial to laying the foundation for the real clogged heart of this study: Whether any of this is actually a bad thing.  In the final piece, they examined the body condition, and 2-3 year survival of the 140 nestlings sampled along the urban to rural gradient.  They found that cholesterol levels had no detectable effect on survival and were actually correlated with higher indices of body condition (meaning mass adjusted for size), a feature that is sometimes tied to higher reproductive success and survival. In other words, there might actually be a scenario where regularly pigging out on McDonalds doesn’t kill you and is maybe kinda helpful?

Needless to say, this caught everyone off guard, including Dr. Townsend, who told me, “I was surprised that we didn’t detect any negative health effects. I was thinking—based on the human literature—that high-cholesterol birds would have lower survival rates, but we didn’t see any effect of cholesterol on survival.”

So what gives? Is the universe really just this unfair?  While we can’t rule out that the answer is simply, “Yes,” the authors speculated that it’s possible a longer study would bear out health consequences that take more than a few years to accrue. There’s also something to be said for the fact that body condition has complex and not always agreed upon relationship with fitness and survival.3 While some studies show pudgy birds have more resources to produce more offspring and keep on ticking, others find inconsistent support. Alternatively, crows may just not live long enough to see their lifestyle catch up to them.  Future long-term studies will be necessary to fully understand whether crows have truly found a loophole in the junk-food problem. For now however, I’m happy to wish my favorite dumpster divers well, though I’ll hold off placing my own orders.

Literature cited

  1. Marzluff JM, McGowen KJ, Roarke D. and Knight RL. 2001. Causes and consequences of expanding American crow populations in Avian ecology and conservation in an urbanizing world (J.M. Marzluff, R. Bowmanm and R Donelly, eds).  Kluwer academic Press, norwell, Ma.
  2. Townsend AK, Staab HA, and Barker CM. 2019. Urbanization and elevated cholesterol in American Crows. The Condor page 1-20
  3. Milenkaya O, Catlin DH, Legge S, and Walters JR. 2015. Body Condition Indices Predict Reproductive Success but Not Survival in a Sedentary, Tropical Bird. Plos One https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0136582

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Filed under Corvid health, Crow behavior, crow diet, Crows and humans, New Research

Crow Vocalizations Part II: Q&A

In Part I of this series I overviewed a new study from my colleague, Loma Pendergraft, about why crows call after discovering food.  For Part II, Loma answered follower-supplied questions on all things crow communication.  The topics we cover include:

Crow-human communication
Crow-other animal communication
Crow-crow communication
Crow sounds
The study of crow communication

I hope you find these answers helpful, or at least illuminating into all that is left to be discovered. Please feel free to leave any additional questions in the comments!

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Crow-human communication

Many people describe situations where they feel they have experienced “conversations” with crows, meaning a back and forth exchange of sounds. Do you think crows notice when we vocalize at them and attempt to vocalize back?
If a person and a crow regularly interact (usually because the person reliably feeds the crows), then it’s fairly common for ritualistic behavior to develop, especially if the behavior is rewarded with food. I don’t know if crows see our vocalizations as an attempt at communication, but they might see it as step one in a series of steps that ends with them being fed- they are vocalizing back to the person because the last time they tried, the person fed them afterwards.

Should people give a signature sound when feeding “their” crows?
It certainly wouldn’t hurt. Crows are smart animals and they’ll quickly learn to associate “their” person’s call with imminent food. This would let the person call the crows to them over long distances.

Do crows try and get the attention of their human feeders with sounds? Might these sounds be just for them (like a specific name or greeting)?
Yes, crows will certainly try to use sounds to get their feeder’s attention. I have a family of crows that come to my office window, and they’ve learned that if they give a rattle call, I’ll feed them (this is actually because I’m often too focused on my computer to notice them unless they call). As to the personalized greeting, that’s possible, but I don’t know for certain.

Can you tell if you are in a crow’s good graces by the sounds it makes?
I don’t know about good graces, but you can certainly tell if you’re in a crow’s bad graces by the sounds they make. If a crow starts scolding you, you know it considers you a threat.

Can crows describe specific people to other crows?
Not directly through vocalizations (e.g. “the dangerous human has black hair and a red shirt”), but they can do so indirectly. If a crow sees a dangerous person, they communicate the presence of danger via vocalizations (“danger here”). When other crows arrive, they watch what the calling crow does to identify which person is dangerous (the screaming bird is divebombing the black-haired human with the red shirt; I better remember him).

Crow-other animal communication

Do crows eavesdrop on other birds to learn new information?
Yes. Crows will respond to the alarm calls of other birds to learn about a predator’s location.

Can crows communicate with other corvids?
Crows will respond to the alarm calls of other corvids (for example, it’s quite common in Seattle for a Steller’s jay to find a sleeping owl, alarm call, and subsequently attract a mob of crows).

Any evidence they listen to mammals? Like would they respond to a squirrel alarm call and vice versa?
I am not aware of any studies that examined whether crows respond to the alarm calls of mammals. I would argue that crows can probably identify certain species of mammalian predators (such as cats, raccoons, squirrels, etc) by listening to their vocalizations, but again, I’m not aware of any studies that examined this.

Crow-crow communication

Do individual crows have specific sounds (like names) for each other?
I don’t know, but there are some interesting anecdotal stories that might shed light on this. Pet ravens who’ve learned to mimic human speech will yell their own name when searching for their owner. This suggests that while the human assigns the name to the bird, the raven assigns the name to the pair bond between them.

Do crow dialects vary by region? If so, on what kind of spatial scale do we define region? Would crows from different regions react appropriately to calls from outside their region?
American crows west of the cascade mountains sound different (their calls are harsher and lower pitched) than the American crows throughout the rest of the country, probably due to ancestral hybridization with Northwestern crows. I don’t know if American crows have dialects in the sense that “traditional” songbirds (such as song sparrows) have dialects. While visiting Oklahoma, I tried playing back alarm calls that I’d recorded in Seattle- the Oklahoma crows reacted the same as Seattle crows (I didn’t have the opportunity to try other call types).

How much variation is there in how individual crows sound? Is it distinct enough to be identifying?
There is a LOT of variation in crow vocalizations, which made interpreting my results very difficult. However, there is evidence that this variation is distinct enough to allow for individual identification. 1

Crow sounds

How many difference sounds can a crow make?
More than most people think. The loud caws make up the bulk of their vocalizations, but they will also utter rattles, growls, coos, and other odd sounds. They are also decent mimics, and can learn to imitate the vocalizations of other animals (including people).

Is there a library that describes the different calls and what they mean?
You can find a large repository of crow recordings at the Macaulay Library, but I am not aware of any libraries that attempt to explain what the calls mean (mostly because we DON’T know what most crow calls mean).

What do the number of caws in a sequence mean?
We don’t know. They are probably important, but only as one component among many different elements.

How much do we know about crow syntax?
Next to nothing, unfortunately. We do know that structured calling has layered repetition in that caws are repeated several times in a series, and series are repeated over the course of several minutes. Here’s one of the more comprehensive studies that cover this topic: Parr, C. (1997). Social behavior and long-distance communication in Eastern American Crows. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI

Can you distinguish males and females from their calls?
I can’t, but there is evidence that the crows can distinguish between male and female calls.2

Do they learn their core sounds from a vocal tutor (as do other songbirds) or is it innate?
I don’t know, nor am I aware of any studies that have examined this.

Do crows ever talk to themselves? Meaning, make sounds not intended for the ears of other crows?
Young crows will “babble” quietly to themselves. I have recorded captive crows uttering very quiet notes in the absence of any immediate neighbors, but as there were other crows in view, you can’t say with certainty that they were talking to themselves.

People described one particular sound in a variety of ways. Some called it clicking, other knocking, some described as the sound Predator makes. I suspect you’ll know it as the rattle call. By any name you wish you describe it, what does it mean?
Most scientists describe it as the “rattle call” (for those who haven’t heard it, it really does sound like the rattling growl of the predator from the 1987 movie). Unfortunately, we don’t know what it means. There is evidence that only female crows utter this sound.3

What do the soft “wow/hoo/wah” calls mean?
We don’t know. It has been described in several scientific papers, but those authors don’t know what it means either.

Have you ever heard them give a call you would describe as a single “beep” sound? Do you know what it means?
Unfortunately, I have not heard them utter this sound. Crows are decent mimics- perhaps what you heard was a crow mimicking something else?

Do you know what the “Gah” sound means?
Unfortunately, no.

Do you now what it means when they puff up and bow and make this kind of “rah RAH” sound?
It sounds like you are describing a vocalization that I labeled “medium call” in my paper (the puffed-up bowing display is commonly done with this call). I believe it is a territorial call- when I played it back to listening crows, they became agitated and responded with their own calls and dominance displays.

Do crows have predator-specific calls like chickadees or prairie dogs?
We don’t think they have species-specific calls the way that prairie dogs do, but there is evidence that they call louder and faster around more dangerous predators (such as hawks) in a similar manner to chickadees giving more “dee” notes to denote relative danger.4

Can crows mimic human voices? Would a wild crow ever learn to mimic human voices, or only captive ones?
Crows are capable of mimicking human voice, but I would only expect captive crows to do this. Hand-reared captive crows usually see themselves as people and bond with their owner the way they normally would a mate. Wild crows wouldn’t have the same exposure or motivation.

Do wild crows ever mimic non-human sounds (other birds, car alarms, etc.). If so, why?
They are capable of mimicking other sounds. I don’t know their motivation for doing so, but I would guess that there’s a social aspect to it (play behavior or impressing prospective/current mate).

The study of crow communication

Very bright people have poured energy and resources into studying crow communication with little return on investment. Why is this so difficult to study?
Crow vocalizations are difficult to study because there’s so many variables to consider. Individual caws can have a wide variation in duration, pitch, and inflection, and they can be uttered in a structured series (which itself can have variation in cadence and rhythm) or as unstructured calls. The context also matters- the same call might mean different things if uttered on/off territory or in the presence/absence of a mate, whereas different calls might mean the same thing depending on whether it’s uttered by a male/female or large/small bird.

I believe that you would need the following before you can “crack the code” on crow vocalizations: a large population of marked crows (caller’s ID, sex, age, and social status), constant tracking of which bird is calling (to account for individual call variation), the caller’s location (on/off territory, is it flying, on ground, or perched), info on what’s happening near the caller (mate nearby/away, food present, rival present), and a sound analysis program sophisticated enough to extract complex info from individual calls (such as pitch contour, pitch wobble, power envelope, and inflection duration) and the overall bout of calls (such as the time between calls within and between series or the cadence among series).

Is there evidence of identifiable morphemes?
None that I’m aware of. There was a study conducted 40 years ago that focused on a topic similar to morphemes- they examined which qualities of an assembly call were the most important for conveying the message to listening crows.5

From an animal communication perspective, can you explain the differences between “call and response” and “turn taking”?
I’m not very familiar with the differences between these terms, but it’s my understanding that “turn taking” animals aren’t focused on communicating with each other- they are simply waiting for the other to stop calling before they give their own call (there’s less noise and better transmission if two signals don’t overlap). In contrast, animals engaged in “call and response” are directly communicating with the other- one animal listens to another’s signal and formulates its response accordingly.

Do crows sing (by the technical definition)?
This is a tricky question. Bird song is learned, more complex than calls, species specific, and serves the dual purpose of warning males away from the territory and attracting/courting females. We don’t know if crow caws are learned or innate, but they do fit the remaining criteria for song (although the various coos, rattles, and other soft notes mates utter to each other might be part of the courtship behavior). It might not sound like a traditional bird song, but structured crow caws seem to fit the technical definition for it.

Do crows meet the definition of having language?
Anytime a scientist describes an animal’s communication system as a language, it makes the linguists angry. Language has many definitions, but all acknowledge that it’s a complex form of communication with rules and syntax (for example, there’s a difference between “hat on head” vs “head on hat”) that’s limited to humans. While crows are certainly capable of communicating basic information among themselves, this communication does not meet the definition of having language.

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Thanks again to everyone that sumitted questions for this post and to Loma for taking the time to respond.  To learn more about Lomas’ work or ask him more questions please check out his blog.

Literature cited

    1. Mates, E. A., Tarter, R. R., Ha, J. C., Clark, A. B., & McGowan, K. J. (2015). Acoustic profiling in a complexly social species, the American crow: caws encode information on caller sex, identity and behavioural context. Bioacoustics, 24: 63-80
    2. Yorzinski, J. L., Vehrencamp, S. L., McGowan, K. J., & Clark, A. B. (2006). The inflected alarm caw of the American crow: differences in acoustic structure among individuals and sexes. The Condor108 518–529
    3. Tarter, R. R. (2008). The Vocal Behavior of the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos [master’s thesis]. The Ohio State University
    4. Yorzinski, J. L., & Vehrencamp, S. L. (2009). The Effect of Predator Type and Danger Level on the Mob Calls of the American Crow. The Condor, 111: 159–168
    5. Richards, D. B., & Thompson, N. S. (1978). Critical Properties of the Assembly Call of the Common American Crow. Behaviour 64: 184–203

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Filed under Crow behavior, Crow curiosities, Vocalizations

Crow Vocalizations Part I: New Science

If there’s one general area of questioning that overshadows all others that I receive, it’s questions about vocalizations. One caw, five caws, quiet wows, and loud clicks. We can’t help but to ask what it all means, and wonder how we might better understand and connect with crows if only we knew. To the chagrin of virtually everyone that has asked me a vocalization question, however, the answer is almost always a very disappointing shrug of ignorance. So to help you better understand what we do know about crow vocalizations and why it pales in comparison to what we don’t know, I am dedicating two posts to this topic. The first one–this one–will cover a recent study authored by my colleague and former labmate, Loma Pendergraft. Part II will take the form of a vocalization Q&A. So sit back, grab a snack, and get ready to know more, or maybe less, about crow vocalizations than you ever thought you could.

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Why are you yelling at the dinner table?

If you’ve ever fed a crow  you may have noticed that shortly after whatever tasty morsel you’ve offered hits the ground, the receiving crow will give a couple caws. If you’re anything like Loma Pendergraft, your next thought will be, “Why?” Are they inviting family members to the feast? Are they trying to scare off competitors? Do the number of caws mean anything?

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Unlike most crow feeders that have to settle for a disappointingly fruitless Google search for an answer, when Loma first asked this as a graduate student he was in a unique position to test it. After three years of labor, his findings have been published in a new paper entitled: Fussing over food: factors affecting the vocalizations American crows utter around food.1 As I can already feel your anticipation in finally finding out what all those food calls are about let me start with a spoiler; you are probably not going to learn what you had hoped to from this study. But you will learn something invaluable about crow communication and how we study it. So with that out of the way let’s start at the beginning.

Generally speaking, if an animal vocalizes at a food source, it must incur some benefit from that vocalization that outweighs the potential costs. Costs include things like getting your food stolen by a competitor or drawing the attention of predators. Conversely, the benefits may consist of things like being able to share resources with your mate or kin, claiming ownership, or attracting other individuals to help you secure a food source away from another bird.

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To try and determine what, if any, of these might motivate the calls that crows produce, Loma conducted three experiments. In the first, he attempted to look for patterns in their vocal behavior by categorizing and quantifying the calls given around food of varying amounts. For example, perhaps for an amount of food small enough as to be consumable by one crow they keep quiet, but for a significant amount they have a specific three-note “I found food” call to alert their mate. In Experiment 2, he ground-tested his ideas about how he was interpreting the calls from Experient 1 by doing playback. Essentially, he wanted to show that if he thought a three-note call was used to attract a mate, then by playing it back the mate should come in. Finally, in Experiment 3 he tested whether the different calls he had recorded had any effect on the listener’s ability to find the food.

To conduct these tests, Loma used wild crow pairs that he located all around Seattle. To prevent the birds from learning his face, he used a variety of sometimes hilarious disguises.  He fed each pair three different amounts of food over the course of three trials: 1 peanut, 5 peanuts or a bountiful 25 peanuts. To try and suss out both if there were any patterns in calls given around food and if calls varied with the amount of food, he recorded their behavior before and after feeding them, and then used vocal analysis software to detect patterns in call structure.

What he found was that, unlike the grand reveal we were all hoping for, few clear patterns emerged from the call data. When crows are around food, they give shorter calls than they did before, and their calls around only a single peanut are longer than when they are around a more substantial amount of food. But in all the other areas where you might expect some pattern to emerge; call rate, peak frequency, the number of syllables, etc., none did.

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Still, the fact that they give short calls around food is suggestive of something, so Loma attempted to determine in Experiment 2 if these short calls are used to either attract birds in or repel them away by playing back those short calls and watching for how the birds responded. The resulting response was more of a whimper than a bang. Or maybe I should say more of a short call than a bang. Because outside of matching the short calls with their own short calls, the crows hardly changed their behavior. Even in Experiment 3 where he looked for whether specific calls aided in the listener’s ability to locate the food, he came away still puzzled. Crows were only able to locate food in 38% of cases and were no better than when played the control chickadee calls.

A cynic may walk away from these findings feeling as if nothing has been gained; that we know little more about what crows are saying around food than we did before. While it’s true we may not have learned much about what they are saying, this study did reveal something important about what they are not saying. Because while Loma found few patterns once the food was down, he did discover that crows give longer calls in the absence of food and that those medium calls prompted territorial behavior when played back. The implication is that crows do not give territorial calls around food, perhaps to avoid risking its discovery by adversaries.

In addition, while it makes for a less compelling headlines, failing to support our hypotheses offers fundamental insights and lays the groundwork for future studies to keep pressing forward. In this case, Loma and his coauthor John Marzluff question whether the difficulty of detecting clear patterns in “x” vocalization leading to “y” behavior is because crows encode so much context-specific information in their calls. In fact, a previous study on American crows found that acoustic variation can indicate the caller’s sex and identity.2 Perhaps the reason we have so much difficulty in mapping out the world of crow communication is that, unlike a crow, we fail to detect all of the information they can ascertain and use to determine how to respond.

So, yes, in some ways we are no closer to Dr. Doolittling the crows than we were before. Instead, we are left with the more compelling reality that our inky friends likely posses an incredibly rich and complex vocal system. For me, this continued mystery only serves to endear them further. After all, do any of us love these birds because we find them straightforward and predictable? I doubt it.

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Want to learn more about Loma’s research or this study in particular? Don’t forget to head over to his blog.  There you can drop him a line with more crow questions or to request his new paper in full.  He did so much more than I summarized here, it’s really worth a full read!

Literature cited

  1. Pendergraft LJ T and Marzluff JM. (2019). Fussing over food: factors affecting the vocalizations American crows utter around food. Animal Behaviour 150: 39-57
  2. Mates EA, Tarter RR, Ha JC, Clark AB, and McGowen KJ. (2014). Acoustic profiling in a complexly social species, the American crow: caws encode information on caller sex, identity and behavioural context. Bioacoustics 24 

14 Comments

Filed under Crow behavior, crow diet, Crows and humans, New Research, Science, Vocalizations

2018 research round up

As 2018 draws to a close, I want to dedicate a post to five of the most interesting and important publications about our favorite family of birds that came out this year. For the sake of a brevity, the reported studies are largely condensed with some tests/results omitted and little attention to normally key experimental elements like controls, statistical analyses, etc. Please click on the study title to be directed to the full publication.

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1. Townsed AK, Frett B, McGarvey A, and Taff CC. (2018). Where do winter crows go? Characterizing partial migration of American Crows with satellite telemetry, stable isotopes, and molecular markers.  The Auk 135: 964-974

Background: Depending on where you live, the answer to, “Do crows migrate?,” can be quite different.  For example, most Seattle residents would probably say no, since large numbers of crows can be seen here year round, while someone in say, a southern Canadian province, may notice a sharp decline in the number of crows during the winter.  That’s because crows are what’s know as “partial migrant species” meaning that within a population, some individuals may be migratory and others resident with more migratory strategies biasing in areas with harsh winters.  Despite the role of partial migration in how scientists currently explain the evolution of complete migration, little is known about the phenomenon.  Even elemental questions such as: is this behavior fixed or flexible within individuals, is it environmentally influenced, and how might species use it to adapt to changing conditions remain under-explored.

Methods: The study looked at two populations of overwintering crows: one in Ithaca, New York and a second in Davis, California.  They used a combination of intrinsic (meaning originating in the body) and extrinsic (meaning originating outside the body) markers to track the movement and origin of their 18 tagged subjects over 2-4 years.  The intrinsic makers included molecular and stable isotope data, and the extrinsic marker was a satellite tracking device that was attached to the bird via a light backpack.  I won’t go into the details of the molecular and stable isotope data, but suffice it to say that stable isotopes were used to identify the place of origin via the unique properties of the local food and water that embed into an individual’s tissue and the molecular data was used to sex individuals and establish relatedness.

Key findings: Of the 18 tagged crows across both east and west coast populations, they found that almost 78% were migratory.  This was a shock to me, TBH.  I had no idea just how many crow were making these annual trips.  The distance these birds traveled varied widely, with some going as “little” as 280 km (173 miles) and others as much as 1095 km (680 miles). Among resident birds, they found that individuals never ventured further than 25 km (15.5 miles) from the center of their breeding site.  For both resident and migratory individuals they found that birds were very loyal to their breeding sites; returning to the same territory year after year.  Given this finding, it should not be surprising to learn that individuals did not vary from year to year in whether they were migratory or not.  Together these results offer clues to how crows may respond to climate and urbanization induced changes in temperature to their local environments.

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2.  von Bayern AMP, Danel S, Auersperg AMI, Mioduszewska B, and Kacelnik A. (2018). Compound tool construction by New Caledonian crows. Nature Scientific Reports 8

Background: For decades people considered the use of tools to be a uniquely human feature.  Now we know that all sorts of animals, ranging from fish to monkeys, use tools and a handful of animals even create tools.  Among the small number of animals that create tools, we have only seen wild individuals modifying a single object.  For example, stripping a twig of small leaves or branches in order to probe small holes for insects.  Whether any wild animal is capable of making compound tools, those made by combining seperate non-functional parts, is unknown.  Even in captivity, this behavior only has limited observation in the great apes.  Understanding what animals are capable of this complex task and how they achieve it, might give us insight into the evolution of our own exective functions.

Methods: This study used eight wild caught captive New Caledonian crows.  Like many experiments involving novel objects, this one occurred over multiple different phases.  In phase I the birds were provided a long stick and a baited test box where food was within reach when using the stick, but not without it.  In phase II the birds were presented with the same baited test box, except that instead of a single long stick, they were given a hollow cylinder and a second, thinner cylinder that needed to be combined in order to generate a tool long enough to reach the food.  In phase III, the birds were given the same problem, only now with novel combinable items.  In phase IV, the researchers tested whether the birds were combining elements because they understood that they needed to, or if because they derived some other benefit from the process.  To do this, they presented birds with a bait box that had two tracks: one where the food was within reach of a single element and one where it required a compound element. In the final phase, birds were presented a bait box that required the combination of more than two elements.

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Image from von Bayern et al. 2018

Key findings: All birds passed the initial tool use phase handily.  Given that New Caledonian crows frequently use single element tools in the wild, this was not at all surprising. In the second phase, half of the subjects (four) were able to combine the two elements after no more than two failed attempts. These subjects were then able to transfer this knowledge when presented novel combinable objects. When given a bait box with food presented on the close and far tracks, birds most often only made compound tools when it was necessary, suggesting that they don’t do it just for fun.  In the final phase, only one bird succeeded in making a tool that required more than two elements.  These findings demonstrate that New Caledonian crows are not only on par with what’s know about compound tool use in the great apes, but actually exceed them.

Unfortunately what this study does not explicitly answer is whether the birds were able to create the needed tools as a result of mental mapping (i.e imagining the correct tool and how it might be assembled) or by happy accident.  Without this knowledge, what their ability to make compound tools suggests about the evolution of things like insight remains mysterious.  Given all the other remarkable ways New Caledonian crows show innovation when it comes to tool use, however, both myself and the authors of this study are hedging that it’s indeed cognition behind these behaviors rather than more simple mechanisms.

3. Boeckle M, Szipl G, and Bugnyar T. (2018). Raven food calls indicate sender’s age and sex. Frontiers in Zoology 15

Background:  One of the most frequent inquiries that come my way are requests to decipher various crow calls.  Given all we know about crows, this doesn’t seem like such an impossible request, but the reality is that crow communications remains one of the most impenetrable black boxes of crow behavior.  I’ll save more on this for a future post dedicated to an upcoming publication by my colleague Loma Pendergraft, who spent his MS learning this fact the hard way.  But suffice it to say that any progress on this front in the various Corvus species is groundbreaking news.  We do, however, know more about raven calls. For example long “haa” calls are thought to recruit other individuals to sources of food.  What was unknown at the start of this study was whether these calls encoded any class-specific information about the caller, such as their age or sex. Calls that impart class-level information about the caller have been previously demonstrated in some marmots and monkeys.

Methods: The researchers recorded hundreds of “haa” calls from wild ravens which had previously been color banded and whose age and sex were known.  Using acoustic software they analyzed the vocalizations for patterns in call elements like frequency and inflection rate.

Key findings: As the study’s title suggests, ravens appear to encode information about their age and sex in “haa” food calls.  For animals like ravens that live in “fission-fussion” social systems, meaning flexible social groups where individuals regularly reencounter familiar individuals, but also encounter unfamiliar ones, class-level information helps individuals quickly assess important aspects of a caller’s identity.  Such information may be key to helping individuals decide if they want to join a feeding event or not.  This decision is particularly important because aggression at feeding events can cause mortal injury, so grouping with a bad crowd can come at a high price.

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4. Kroner A, and Ha R. (2018). An update of the breeding population status of the critically endangered Mariana Crow (Corvus kubaryi) on Rota, Northern Mariana Islands 2013–2014. Bird Conservation International 28: 416-422 

Background: The Mariana crow or Aga is a native species to the islands of Guam and Rota.  After the introduction of the brown tree snake to Guam in the 1940’s, Guam’s entire population of Aga were wiped out leaving only those found on Rota to continue the species.  In 1982, the population hovered around 1,300 individuals but things were clearly in decline. In 1984 the Aga was officially listed as endangered and today is considered critically endangered by the IUCN.  Unlike on Guam, there is no clear reason why the Aga continues to decline on Rota, though habitat loss, persecution by humans, natural disasters and introduced predators like cats likely all work together.

Methods: During 2013-2014 researchers counted breeding pairs by surveying all known island territories.  During these counts (which took 845 hours of labor and traversed 1,485 hectares!) the researchers also documented any unpaired or subadult birds. Since the entire island could not be surveyed, to ultimately estimate the population size the researchers used models that accounted for missed detections.

Key findings: Spoiler alert: They are A BUMMER.  In all that searching only 46 breeding pairs were detected.  Accounting for unpaired birds and detection failures, the researchers estimate that the current population of Aga hovers around 178 individuals.  Obviously that number alone is a gut punch but it’s especially true when you consider that that’s a 10-23% decline since 2007 and a 46-53% decline since 1998.  Researchers estimate that at least 75 pairs are needed to maintain a viable population of Aga.  Without intensive predator management and community level advocacy for these birds, their future is sadly looking grimmer and grimmer.

5. Walker LE, Marzluff JM, Metz MC, Wirsing AJ, Moskal ML, Stahler DR, and Smith DW. (2018). Population responses of common ravens to reintroduced wolves. Ecology and Evolution 8: 11158-11168

Background: One of the most persistent myths about common ravens is that they have a symbiotic relationship with grey wolves; intentionally showing them carcasses they find and then sharing in the bounty together.  But while the case is actually that ravens are unwelcome dinner guests at the wolves’ table, there’s no question that the two species have profound effects on one another. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 therefore offers a valuable way to study how the presence of wolves affects the spatial distribution and feeding behaviors of park ravens.

Methods: This study was a collaborative effort between avian and spatial ecologists at the University of Washington and Yellowstone wolf biologists.  Using data from 2009-2017 on wolf abundance and prey kills, and raven surveys taken both within the interior of the park and at anthropogenic food sources in surrounding areas (ex: the Gardner town dump), the researchers were able to model raven abundance during both the study period and before the reintroduction of wolves.  I won’t go into the details of how these models are created, but suffice it to say that their purpose is to take the data you give them and find what predictors best explain your observed outcomes.  For example if, say, you have a bunch of data about where ravens were located at different times, and have data on different possible predictors, say, wolf abundance, weather, carcass abundance, carcass biomass, and distance to anthropogenic food, etc., the right model could help you identify that carcass biomass is the best predictor of raven abundance.

Key findings: Previous studies have demonstrated that wolves make more kills during severe winters with higher snowpack, because prey have a more difficult time evading them.  As a result, the researchers hypothesized that ravens would depend more heavily on wolf kills during severe winters,  but this is not what they found.  Instead, Yellowstone ravens seem to lean more on consistent, anthropogenic food sources during tough winters, but lean more on wolf provided carrion during more mild winters.  Still, the presence of wolves has increased and stabilized the number of ravens in the park, because they provide a second year-round source of food, in contrast to human hunter provided kills which are seasonally limited.  These findings are yet another demonstration of the value of top carnivores in stabilizing food webs and providing food for a cascade of creatures.

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6. And as a bonus let’s not forget the most important 2018 study of them all, “Occurrence and variability of tactile interactions between wild American crows and dead conspecifics,” which you can read all about here. 😉

leslie

 

 

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Filed under Conservation, Crow behavior, crow intelligence, New Research, Raven behavior, Ravens, Science

15,000 crows

I had imagined it like a beckoning flood.  A small sputter of water followed with increasing force until a great river finally makes its way.  Rather than water though, the flood I was trying to envision was the ascent of 12-15,000 crows to their nightly roost in Bothell, Washington.

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Witnessing it in person, I found that my water analogy was not entirely accurate.  Rather than being a steady stream with a predictable course, their arrival ebbed and flowed, sometimes leaving the sky lonely with only its fading grey light while other times exploding into seemingly endless black clouds.  They arrived from all cardinal directions, colliding into a mass that could be deafening at close range.  Although the movement of the flock as a whole was more restrained, individually they showed off with spontaneous dives and barrel-rolls.  Soon the light receded completely, and all I could sense was the cacophony of so many crows settling into the willow trees they would call their beds for the evening.

Time lapse of Bothell crow roost I took with my GoPro in December of 2016.  Music by Andy McKeen.

Since that first experience, I have visited the Bothell roost many times, each as awe inspiring as the time before.  This behavior isn’t unique to my region, however.  Cities and rural areas all over the world call themselves home to the upwards of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of crows that may seek their refuge when darkness falls.  Even in the greater Seattle area, Bothell is only one of two roughly equally sized roosts.  This kind of mass sleepover, known as communal roosting, isn’t unique to crows, but it certainly captures our attention in ways most other birds don’t.  So what exactly are the characteristics and functions of roosts?

For all species of corvid, roosts are places where anywhere from a small handful to hundreds of thousands of individuals may converge to spend the night together.  Though roosting occurs year round, it peaks in winter, when territorial pairs are free from the eggs or nestlings that demand all-night attention.  They may occur in wildlands, but more typically occur in cities, where sequestration of heat is higher than in surrounding areas.  Here in Bothell, the roost converges in a wetland outside of the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, but in other areas they may take over the rafters of abandoned buildings or trees dotted within a business district.

Historically Danville, IL hosted North America’s largest roost, a whopping 325,000 birds but I do not know if they remain the contemporary record holder.  The midwest is particularly primed to host such large numbers because many thousands of crows head there during winter from their too cold territories in Canada and because appropriate roosting locations are few and far between.

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Prior, or just after roosting crows attend “staging” or “pre/post-roost” areas where they gather in the trees or on the ground by the hundreds or thousands.  Since these staging areas often occur on asphalt or turf where there’s little food or water, their function continues to elude scientists though social or anti-predator implications seem likely.1 A new UW research study is attempting to parse why crows are so vocal during the staging period and what they might be trying to communicate.  Perhaps their findings will shed some much needed light on these events. 

Corvids get different things out of roost itself depending on the species or possibly even the region they live.  For example, for ravens roosts act, in part, as mobile information centers.2  A raven knowledgeable of a food bonanza such as a moose carcass will display to other ravens at first light, and recruit others to the food.  Rather than being a sign of food altruism, this kind of recruitment is often the only way a lone raven can gain access to a large carcass.  Finding and gaining access to an animal carcass is challenging both because its arrival is unpredictable but also because it’s intensely guarded by the pair whose territory happened to claim the animal’s life.  Overpowering a pair takes a small army, so by recruiting other birds, rather than giving up food in the name of helping others, the lone raven actually gains access to a resource it would have otherwise been boxed out of.

American crows on the other hand do not have this need because urban waste and invertebrate filled yards are so easy to come by.  For crows, roosts act in large part as predator protection.  The odds of successfully fleeing an incoming owl are much better when there are thousands of you, rather than just you and your mate.  They may serve other purposes as well though including socialization, mate finding, and thermoregulation.  Lastly, while there isn’t strong evidence of information sharing among crows it would be arrogant to claim we know it doesn’t occur.

How roosts are organized remains largely mysterious.  For example some evidence shows that ravens that come from the same food bonanzas also sleep near each other in a roost,2 whereas other work done on crows suggested that group cohesion is low at roosts.3  Still, other research suggests that while group cohesion from the territory is low,  it’s high leaving the staging area.  So perhaps there is deep rhyme and reason for who they sleep with, it just hasn’t been captured by the questions we’ve so far asked.  One thing is for certain though; the one place you don’t want to be is low in the trees with others above you.  There would be no escaping the white shower raining down throughout the night.

Even the people who share the UW’s campus are sensitive to this reality.  In perfect synchrony with the incoming cloud of birds, the umbrellas bloom like moonflowers.  Here in Seattle, people seem willing to take such measures to coexist with the birds (though I’m sure there are many who only do so only by rule of law).  In other areas though the cultural attitude or resulting damage makes such cohabitation difficult, even deadly.  In the most extreme case, 328,000 crows were killed in 1940 when the city of Rockford, IL elected to dispose of a local roost with dynamite.4  Today, crows are protected under the migratory bird treaty act and cities are usually required to take more creative, non-lethal approaches including noise and light deterrents.

City living doesn’t always lend itself to witnessing the kind of mass animal movements we fawn over when they appear in Planet Earth footage, but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of such spectacles.  The mass micro-migration of thousands of crows is an awe inspiring event,  grand in both scale and the mysteries it contains.  Any corvid or birdwatcher would be remiss to ignore such an opportunity and I encourage everyone to get outside, head to your roost, and watch the magic unfold.

Literature cited

  1. Moore JE, and Switzer PV. (1998).  Preroost aggregations in the American crow, corvus brachyrhyncos.  Canadian Journal or Zoology.  76: 508-512.
  2. Wright J, Stone RE, and Brown N. (2003).  Communal roosts as structured information centers in the raven, Corvus corax. Animal Ecology 72: 1003-1014.  DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2656.2003.00771.x
  3. Donald F. Caccamise, Lisa M. Reed, Jerzy Romanowski and Philip C. Stouffer
    (1997). Roosting Behavior and Group Territoriality in American Crows. The Auk 114: 628-637
  4. Marzluff, J.M. and Angel, T. 2005. In the company of crows and ravens.  Yale University Press

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Filed under Birding, Crow behavior, crow conflicts, Crow curiosities, Crow life history, Crows and humans

RAVENous for crow eggs 

Given their similarities, it might surprise folks to see crows occasionally harassing and chasing ravens. After all, birds of a feather right? Not in this case.  Rather than being in cahoots, the relationship between crows and ravens is most often competitive, though it can also be predatory.

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A raven barrel rolls to scold an attacking crow.

Such is the case in a recent video shared with me by a reader, Ty Lieberman.  To the dismay of him and his colleagues, a crow nest they had been observing outside their Los Angeles office window was partially dismantled, and at least one egg taken by what they believed was a pair of crows.   Concerned for the survival of the nest, Ty reached out for my interpretation.  Based on his initial description, I wondered if maybe he had witnessed egg transport, something I knew had been observed in black-billed magpies and pinon jays.1  Previous accounts of these species included descriptions of eggs being taken, and then returned to the nest, as well as eggs being deposited into the nests of neighbors, both of which are utterly fascinating behaviors and probably warrant their own post.

To date, however, there are no accounts of crows engaging in this behavior, though there is one documented observation of a nestling being deposited into a nest from which it did not originate.2  Again, utterly fascinating, but not helpful here.

Later, a more detailed account from Ty made mention of the size of the intruding birds, which quickly led me to the story’s true explanation.  Shortly after my ‘ah ha’ moment, to the dismay of he and his colleagues the nest raiders returned, and this time were caught on video by one of Ty’s colleagues (who you can follow on twitter, @namnam).  Rather than being crows, these literal homewreckers were common ravens.

Instead of being something out of the ordinary, Ty had witnessed a typical breeding season interaction between crows and ravens.  It’s no wonder then, that crows can be so hostilie when ravens enter their territory. 

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Crows (top) mobbing a raven (bottom) in Kent, WA

Eggs of all kinds are one of the most power-packed meals in the animal kingdom, so it’s no surprise ravens would take advantage of crow nests when they find them.  Around this same time back in 2015, a black bear made a similarly memorable meal out of a raven nest, reminding us that for corvids of all kinds, it’s a constant fight between being predator or prey.

Literature cited

  1.  Trost CH and CL Webb. 1986. Egg moving by two species of corvid. Animal Behaviour 34: 294-295.
  2. Schaefer JM and Dinsmore JJ.  1992.  Movement of a nestling between American crow nests.  The Wilson Bulletin 104: 185-187

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Filed under Birding, Breeding, Crow behavior, Raven behavior

Crow curiosities: Why their feet don’t freeze

With a peanut visible in my gloved hand, we square off.  The crow eyes me from its snow covered perch, weary of such gifts offered by strangers.  Above us a raven castes a disinterested look, croaks, and flies away.  I toss the nut into an empty parking space and the crow descends to quickly collect its prize.  The space between us must be widened before it will comfortably eat however, so I decide to leave the crow to its snack and return to my car.

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Scrunching my feet in my shoes, I’m relieved for the excuse to retreat.  It’s about 10˚F outside and despite the wool socks and insulated boots between my skin and the snow I can tell that my feet are numb from the cold.  Even stashed in my pocket, my gloved hands are having trouble articulating to their full range.  How is it that my extremities lose function even with so much coddling and yet the crows can continue using their bare toes to steady and manipulate food in such cold weather?

To be clear, birds are endothermic, or warm blooded, just like mammals.  In fact, on average, birds run a little hotter than mammals.  And their feet, like ours, requires warm blood both to function and to prevent the tissues from outright freezing and causing cell death.  Yet despite these needs birds can comfortably walk, stand, or even sleep on ice.

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Glassy ice makes cold footing!

To do so, they can take advantage of two important adaptations.   The first is that the size of the arteries carrying blood into the legs and feet is exceedingly small.  Given this high surface to volume ratio, the blood has already lost most of its heat by the time it reaches the feat, and can’t lose much more to the outside world.  The second is that they employ what’s called a counter current heat exchange system.  Essentially, warm blood traveling away from the core and towards the feet via the arteries comes into close contact with colder blood traveling away from the feet and towards the core via the veins. At this point of contact, heat from arterial blood is transferred to blood traveling in the veins. This heat exchange system allows for the tissues in the feet receive just enough heat to prevent cell death, and can reduce heat loss by up to 90%1.

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A crow wades out across a frozen Drumheller Fountain in search of scraps

As an additional strategy, you’ll see them protecting their exposed legs under their body feathers, as if they’re incubating them.  This is the same reason you often see winter birds standing on one leg.  By switching back and forth, birds can minimize overall heat loss by reducing the exposure to only a single leg.

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A crow covers its feet while it waits (hopes) for a handout

So while I need special clothing to keep my extremities at a similar temperature range to my core, the physiology of most birds is adapted to simply allowing extremities to exist at near ambient temperatures with no tissue damage.  In other words, rather than crows’ feet not getting cold, their feet simply are cold.  That said, frostbite is still a possibility even in birds, particularly for: nonnative species, birds in wire cages, birds with metal legbands, and birds in unseasonably cold conditions.  If frost bite occurs, early treatment at a rehab facility can prevent long term damage2.

Still, the idea that cold-adapted birds can keep their hearts beating away at around 105˚F even while their feet are exposed to freezing temperatures is marvel of adaptation and thermoregulation!

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Literature cited:

  1. Elphick C, Dunning JB Jr., Sibley DA (eds).  (2001) The Sibley guide to bird life and behavior.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf
  2. Wellehan JFX. (2003). Frostbite in birds: Pathophysiology and treatment.  Compendium 25: 776-781

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Filed under Corvid health, Crow behavior, Crow curiosities