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“Mirror, mirror on the wall

am I the smartest of them all?”

…Is not a question crows are asking, despite what you may have heard.  Because they, like basically all the super smart birds, are really, really bad at the mirror test.

Jungle crow mirror

A juvenile jungle crow catches its reflection in a window. Photo: Paul Brown

This might contradict what you’ve heard elsewhere.  But the reality is that corvid after corvid fails the mirror test.  Except two European magpies.1  That’s right,  every sound bite you’ve ever heard that corvids possess self awareness (as evidenced by their excellence at the mirror test) is based on the performance of two birds. But more on that later.

In humans, self recognition in mirrors emerges reliably when we are about two years old and it marks the beginning of a developmental process that culminates in the rich consciousness that makes us human, at least abstractly.  Given a mirror’s significance to our own understanding of the self, it’s no surprise we’re so curious to see what non-humans animals do, and more curious still to see if it can show us whether they share our possession of consciousness.  In fact, putting animals in front of mirrors and looking for signs of recognition is something we’ve been doing, at least officially, since the 1970’s.   Since those initial studies on chimps, a debate has raged over the outcomes and overall efficacy of such tests.

A mirror test is generally composed of two parts.  The first is spontaneous self directed behaviors.  In other words, when an animal encounters a mirror for the first time, does it react like it’s looking at itself with behaviors like self exploration or does it freak out at this stranger suddenly standing in front of it?  What about after it has 100 hours of experience with a mirror or a 1,000?  The second test is known as the ‘mark test.’ A mark like a red or blue dot is applied to the animal without its knowledge and we watch and see if once it gets in front of the mirror it tries to remove or at least touch the mark.

With respect to both these tests, from African grey parrots to New Caledonian crows, we see consistent failure, or at best inconsistent maybe-kinda success.2,3 For the record, while there’s no published tests that have been done on American crows, I can tell you that I’ve watched reflective windows and car mirrors ruin many a breeding crow’s afternoon plans. In Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich reports a mostly neophobic response among his captive birds, punctuated in some individuals with moderate curiosity.

So what of Gretie and Goldie, those two magpies that did show higher mark recognition when given a mirror than control birds?  There’s two problems. The first that they used stickers to mark the birds and it’s difficult to know whether it was really the mirror eliciting the behavior or if maybe they could just feel the stickers. This idea was championed after a study done on jackdaws found that birds without mirrors detected the stickers just as often as those with mirrors.4  If they had detected them equally zero times then it might just indicate that jackdaws are bad at the test, but the fact that they did detect them in both cases is what raises the alarm because it shows the birds were somehow sensing the stickers in the absence of the mirror.

The second problem is simply:  what can two birds, especially out of a sample size of five, really tell us about whether corvids understand their reflection in a mirror anyway?  Not much.

Maybe you’re thinking “well, perhaps they just don’t understand how mirrors work at all, so of course they don’t recognize themselves.”  This isn’t a bad idea but it doesn’t appear to be true.  In that study on New Caledonian crows for example, while the birds didn’t show any self recognition behaviors, they could use the mirror to find hidden food. This demonstrates that they can exploit the properties of a mirror, and understand that mirrors reflect objects in the real world.  We see the same in grey parrots.

So now that I’ve gone and dampened things, let’s just go ahead and soak the rest of that blanket.  Because even if corvids or other birds passed the mark test with flying colors, it wouldn’t necessarily mean they are self aware   which is kind of the point of the whole test.  Enter pigeons.  Since the 1980’s we’ve known that pigeons excel at the mark test with a little bit of training, just like they can excel at shape discrimination or any number of other seemingly complex tasks.5  But the ability to learn isn’t in and of itself a reflection of capacity for complex thinking.  After all, it only takes 8 days to train a spider to solve a maze.6

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Pigeons in the original Epstein et al. 1981 paper

So does failing the mirror test mean corvids don’t possess theory of mind or the capacity for self awareness?  No.  Based on other studies, particularly those in ravens, it may be more likely that a mirror test, at least in it’s most common form, is just not a biologically appropriate way to ask this question.7,8  So don’t write off the capacity of a corvid to know thyself just yet.  But maybe offer a polite “ah, hem” the next time someone marvels at the narcissism of magpies.

Literature cited

  1. Prior, H., Schwartz, A. and Güntürkün, O. (2008). Mirror-induced behavior in the magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of self-recognition.  PLOS Biology 6: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202
  2. Pepperberg, I. M., Garcia, S. E., Jackson, E. C., & Marconi, S. (1995). Mirror use by African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 109: 182
  3. Medina, F.S., Taylor, A.H., Hunt, G.R., and Grey, R.D. (2011).  New Caledonian crows ‘ responses to mirrors.  Animal Behaviour 82: 981-993
  4. Soler, M., Perez-Contreras, T., and Peralta-Sanchez, J. (2014).  Mirror-mark test performance on jackdaws reveals potential methodological problems in the use of stickers in avian-mark test studies.  PLOS ONE 9: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0086193
  5. Epstein, R., Lanza, R.P., and Skinner, B.F. (1981).  “Self-awareness” in the pigeon.  Science 212: 695-696
  6. Punzo, F. (2000). An experimental analysis of maze learning in the wolf spider, Trochosa parthenus (Areaneae: Lycosidae).  Florida Scientist 63: 155-159
  7. Clary, D. and Kelly M.D. (2016).  Graded mirror self recognition by Clark’s nutcrackers.  Scientific Reports 6: doi:10.1038/srep36459
  8. Bugnyar, T., Reber, S.A., and Buckner, C.  (2016) Ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors.  Nature Communications 7.  doi:10.1038/ncomms10506

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I need your help or Corvid Research is toast

About three years into my graduate program the emails, letters and blog comments started. A trickle at first, maybe only one or two things every couple of months. Now, five years into my program, the questions, calls for help, requests for opinions, and desire to share stories of corvid joy, sadness or sheer mystery are relentless.

And I love it. It’s one of my favorite parts of my work. Few graduate students get to engage with the public in the way that I do or will ever experience the public appreciating the research they do or the expertise they’ve acquired through the often tremendous personal sacrifice of being a grad student. Hardly any will ever get an email saying “your research is so cool” or “keep up the good work” or “your work changed my heart and mine about something” or “thank you.” They won’t ever hear those words despite the fact their research may have far more reaching and positive effects on the health and wellness of their non-human and human communities than mine does. But I do get to hear those things because the nature of my research means it makes for a cool blog and gets written about in publications like National Geographic and The Week.  And I am truly grateful for that. But on behalf of all those students who aren’t so well known I want to use my platform to ask something of you now.  Because our existence as graduate students is under attack.

If you’ve been keeping up with current events you’ll know that our GOP leaders are working on a tax reform bill. What many people do not yet know, however, is that the current bill will do away with key features intended to help make higher education affordable. Including:

–Section 117(d), which exempts tuition waivers from being counted as taxable income

–Section 127, which exempts employer education assistance from being taxed

–The Lifetime Learning Tax Credit

–The Student Loan Interest Deduction

–Consolidation of the American Education Opportunity Credit to only be used for 4 + 1 years

I could write whole blog posts on every one of those points but for the sake of brevity let’s focus just on the first one, the tax exemption for tuition waivers.

Most grad students working in STEM fields (Science Technology Engineering and Math) fund their degree with teaching assistantships or research assistantships. In my case, I started with an RA because I had an NSF Fellowship and when that ended after three years, I transitioned to a quarter by quarter struggle to find a TA position. For my TA work, the university pays me at 50%, meaning I receive a salary based on 20 hours of work (despite the fact most TA’s work considerably more.) My annual stipend is $23,000, but it can vary anywhere from $15,000-35,000 depending on your source of funding and state. This money is intended to provide basic cost of living and for many students, especially those with dependents, it barely covers that. But we make due because there’s few other options, we love science, and we know that our work has a meaningful impact on our communities.

This stipend money, regardless of the source, is taxed. As it should be. But in addition to a small stipend these TA and RA positions include tuition waivers which are valued at anywhere from 12-50k a year. This waiver is basically the University paying itself for our tuition and under the current system it’s not considered income. The waiver is designed to offset the considerable costs of pursuing higher education in this country. And, because grad students aren’t just professionals in training, but are currently contributing to our universities (and communities at large) through our labor, research and publications, it seems reasonable that we shouldn’t be paying for work we do in their name.

Losing this tuition waiver would mean students like me would still be getting paid about $23,000 but taxed as if our salary was in the neighborhood of $60,000. In fact some grad students are poised to have the biggest tax hike of any demographic under this new plan. That’s not financially feasible for most people (including myself), especially those who have already accrued debt from their undergraduate education, or who come from low income families, or those supporting dependents. It would be a disaster for STEM. 

Let me be clear: I’m not trying to paint the plight of grad students as the most important casualty of this bill. There are lots of reason to oppose it and we can’t all be fighting the same battle when are are so many different ones underway. But if you are reading this because you know and appreciate my research, popular articles, #CrowOrNo, blog, or even if you just care about STEM…that it continues to exist and attracts people of all financial means, then I need you to call or write to your legislators. They need to know that their non-grad student, tax paying constituents want to keep people like me in school.  If you need any help navigating how to do this please use this resource: Action Alert! – Tax Reform.

I will be here to answer your crow questions from now until well after my run at grad school ends.  But this time I need you to return the favor.  Please contact your legislators.

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How crows responded to the eclipse, according to you

Back in August, I challenged my readers to submit their observations of how their local crows responded to the total (or partial depending on your location) eclipse that occurred on the 21st.  Six of you offered up your observations and suffice it to say they ran the gamut.  From completely typical behavior to massive gatherings deemed unusual, there was no pattern to the handful of observations that were reported.  Here’s my summary of what you observed:

Three people reported no changes in behavior, with one person even witnessing a crow flying overhead during the moment of totality.

Two people reported seeing more crows than usual and that they were more noisy.  Almost like a typical pre-roosting behavior but in the middle of the day.

One person reported that the birds were more quiet than usual, and remained quiet for 30min after the eclipse.

I myself failed to find any corvids during the totality but I did watch a sparrow (not identified to species) forage on the ground just before, and just after the totality.  I did not see where it was during the few moments of complete totality, though given its proximity to its position prior to totality I reasoned it must not have gone far and could have easily been foraging as before just without my detection.

Thanks for sharing your notes everyone!  Looking forward to the next round in seven years 🙂

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How will crows respond to the eclipse? 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that this coming Monday a total solar eclipse will cross the continental United States. Eclipses are significant moments in the lives of humans but scientists know less about how non-human animals respond to them. After all, opportunities to observe this phenomenon occur only a couple times a year, and its occurrence in the same geographical area is substantially more rare. The last total solar eclipse in the US was in 1979. Since then, not only has our technology to research this phenomenon evolved, but methods for the public to engage in eclipse related citizen science has exploaded. You can read about all the different opportunities here.


Of these opportunities, the one that excites me most is the California Academy of Science’s ‘Life Responds’. By using the iNaturalist app, CAS invites you to make and report observations of how a particular organism responds to the eclipse. The instruction are simple and you can read the full protocol here. I encourage all my readers to consider participating with any species you choose, BUT I thought it might be fun to host a mini crow-specific Life Responds challenge here on the blog. 

How will crows or other corvids respond to the eclipse?


To that end, I invite all of you to follow the Life Responds observation protocol, and in addition to sending your observations in via iNaturalist, email them to me or leave them in a comment here. I’ll then synthesize all your observations into a little mini report that we can all learn from and enjoy. Sound fun? I hope so! 

Remember, if you chose to participate, please follow the Life Responds protocol. While I’ll certainly accept general comments/observations, if everyone follows the same collection method our observations will be much easier to synthesize and interpret. 

Not able to be in the path of totality? No problem! Your observations are still invited and valuable. I’m particularly interested in whether or not Seattlites observe the crows abandon their daytime activities and head towards the roost as the light changes. I myself will be down in Oregon in the path of totality, so I’ll miss that observation. Hopefully I can locate a corvid from my observation spot in Oregon. If you have questions let me know, otherwise enjoy the eclipse and remember to protect your eyes 👀! 

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A story you might enjoy

Generally speaking, I don’t write posts advertising specific stories or news articles about my work.  I figure anything going in those stories is all stuff you can get firsthand here, and of course I link to all of them on my ‘In the Media’ page so they’re never far out of reach anyway.  But I wanted to put out a special post about Vicki Croke’s article for the WBUR’s The Wild Life blog.  Most of the time when people write about me, the blog is a footnote, a way to learn more if you wish, but not something mentioned specifically.  As a follower of this blog, I imagine you have some idea how much time and effort I put into it (as much a grad student’s life allows for it, anyway) so I was extremely flattered and honored when Vicki made the blog a focal point of the article.  Given the supportive community we have built here together, I thought you especially would enjoy reading this piece.  Let me know what you think of it in the comments and thank you for your continued presence here and passion for crows.

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Crow curiosities: Why was I attacked by a crow?

You’re minding your own business when seemingly from out of nowhere you are, or very nearly are, struck in the back of the head by crow.  It’s frightening, embarrassing, and in rare cases even painful.  So what prompted this unprovoked attack?

crow-attack-1

If you were to gauge the answer based on newspaper headlines you might believe that it’s because crows are evil, vicious or otherwise hellbent on tormenting us humans.  This choice of words communicates that crows are behaving as they are because they lack moral decency, which is both anthropomorphic and grossly misrepresents the biological cause of their behavior.

Rather than being a reflection of their species’ character, or The Birds come to life, crows are increasingly behaving this way right now because young crows are starting to venture out of the nest.  As I’ve talked about before, it’s not unusual for baby crows (and other birds) to leave the nest while still unable to fly.  Although their parents will continue to care for them after this for many months, these first couple weeks out of the nest are a particularly vulnerable time for young crows.  Their parents are therefore keen to protect their offspring, and are willing to come to blows with potential predators if necessary.  You may have no intention of harming or even coming near their offspring, but of course the crows have no way of assessing your intentions.  You are simply a big, powerful animal that is encroaching on their young, and they are driven to scare you away.  They are simply being protective parents.

DSC_0710

If you were my parents you’d want to keep me safe from big mammal-monsters too

The tricky thing is that because we might not be expecting to encounter young crows or because they are tucked away out of sight under a bush, it may not be clear that this is the cause of their behavior.  Trust me though, unless you have a history of wronging your local crows, attacks between May and September are nearly exclusively related to the protection of young.

crow_maskedman_-Keith-Brust

Although crows will dive bomb people who have wronged them in the past, during the summer the most likely explanation for attacks is defense of offspring.

So what to do?  As the kids grow up and become more independent the parents will relax.  So, if possible, you can simply avoid the areas you know to be high conflict for the next couple of weeks.  In fact, some newspaper outlets even make attack maps to help people navigate the streets of stressed out crow parents.  If this isn’t possible, carry an umbrella or simply walk with your hand on top of your head.  This may not keep them from giving you a good swoop or two, but it will generally prevent any real damage.

 

 

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What’s in a (corvid) name?

Most people know various corvid species by their common names but have you ever wondered what etymologies inform their scientific names? Turns out it’s a pretty fun little exercise to find out!

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Before we get to breaking down individual corvids though, a quick word on scientific names more generally.  Scientific names always have the format: Genus species. Meaning, the first word in the name tells you what genus the plant/animal belongs to and the second tells you the species name specific to that organism. So for example crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens are all in the same genus so their scientific names will all start with the same word: Corvus. The second word, however, will be unique to each species. This system of binomial nomenclature was first developed by Carl Linnaeus in the 1700’s.  By looking up the roots of an animal’s scientific name we can learn a thing or two about what he, (or whoever named it) was trying to highlight. Then again, sometimes they’re just fans of Beyoncé or Jonny Cash.

One more note: although scientific names are often referred to, informally, as Latin names, their roots may actually pull from many languages.  Though by far the most common languages are Latin and Greek.

As it happens, I have an old book of  root words I inherited from my late grandfather, Richard Swift. Something about having that book in my hands begged for this exploration in a way that having the breadth of the Internet at my fingertips never did. What can I say, a childhood spent in the library of my grandfather’s office has made me a sucker for old, smelly books. So let’s get started!

Common raven: Corvus corax
Common ravens are the biggest of the corvids (and in fact, the biggest of all the songbirds) so it makes sense their name might be the yardstick by which other corvids are measured. Cora literally translates to “crow, raven” so the common raven’s scientific name essentially just means raven.

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GO, the American crow

American crow: Corvus brachyrhynchos
Turning to American crows, we can see that yardstick I mentioned coming into play. Brachy means “short” and rhynch means “a beak or snout.” So the American crow’s full scientific name basically translates to the “short-beaked crow.”

junlge crow

Jungle crow, photo c/o Anne Kurasawa

Jungle crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
At this point, the meaning of the jungle crow’s name probably needs no explanation. The bird looks essentially like an American crow but with a more pronounced bill. Macr rhynch = large beak.

corvus_albus_-etosha_national_park_namibia-8

Pied crow, photo c/o Frank Vassen

Pied crow: Corvus albus
Alb means “white.” No mystery here.

house-crow444

House crow, photo c/o Benjamint444

House crow: Corvus splendens
Splen means “a badge or patch.” With grey sweater they sport, it’s likely the person who named them was trying to highlight this physical distinction.

thick billed raven

Thick billed raven, photo: Ignacio Yufera

Thick-billed raven: Corvus crassirostris
Sometimes, scientific names are precisely their common names. Such is the case here. Crass means “thick” and rostr means “beak.” This is a good example of where we see different languages influencing the names.  In this case, thick-billed ravens got the Latin root, whereas American and jungle crows got the Greek root for beak.

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Rook, photo c/o Pam P.

Rook: Corvus frugilegus
This one is less clear to me. Frugi means “useful, fit” and legus means “lie down; choose; or collect” depending on what language you pull from. My guess is it’s supposed to be ‘collect’ and the name refers to the more specialized bill they have for collecting insects.

Finally,

grey-crow

The grey or bare-faced crow, photo c/o B.J Coates

The grey crow: Corvus tristis
Trist means “mournful; sad.” I have a feeling I know the backstory for this one but I’ll leave it to my readers to see if they can figure it out. Leave me your best explanation (made up or researched) in the comments!

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