Gifts of the Crow: brain scan proof these birds are devious, silly and smart

Remember the experiment of banding (and annoying) campus crows wearing Halloween masks (including Dick Cheney) to show that the birds recognized individual people? The researcher John Marzluff–along with illustrator and natural history educator Tony Angell–bring the same playfulness and affection for crows to this semi-academic, totally fun book that shows just how smart the birds are.

After reading Gifts of the Crow, I want to go out in the park and make friends with some of these birds. So often when I ask people who get to spend a lot of time with lots of wildlife which animal is their favorite, they like crows and ravens best because they interact the most with people. One of my favorite animal experiences in a week at Yellowstone was a raven who dragged her wing in a parking lot in a (very successful) bid to get food (and when she did, she’d fly away, just fine.)

I was expecting (and kind of looking forward to) another of the genre of golly,-animals-are-smarter-than-we-think books based on crazy crow stories. Gifts of the Crow has plenty of those amusing stories, but is mainly about scientifically dismantling the notion that birds don’t think like we do. They cite a lot research with brain scans, showing how different regions of the crow’s brain operate and offer rewards for different occasions.

Fascinatingly, they show that early research thought birds were dumb because the front part of their brain is smooth and in humans, the more wrinkled and folds on the brain, the more you know. A chemical stain discovered later revealed many grooves–evidence of learning. Later, Marzluff shows  how when someone coos to a crow and offers food, they have a reaction in middle regions of the brain tied to  social interactions.  When the bird perceives someone as threatening, the right side of the brain, known for fear responses, goes to work. I’m glad this kind of research has been done–and that these guys have the sense to summarize it and tuck it away in the robust notes section.

Happily they cushion all the academic chit-chat of scans of brain regions with crows being smart, silly, vindictive or generous. We have crows using tools, sledding, stealing windshield wipers and leaving gifts of random human paraphernalia for people who feed them. In the now-famous University of Washington experiment, the crows tormented anyone wearing the bad guy mask–even if the birds themselves had not been banded. They learned from other birds about the danger.

The authors have a good time with the birds. At one point they’re on a trip and a raven befriends them–so they just put him through some classic bird intelligence tests. They even advocate that people be allowed to keep non-releasable wild crows as pets–since wildlife rehabilitators would just have to euthanize them. These are so well known to birders they have collected anecdotes from all over the globe. That allows them to see the patterns of weird crow behavior like never before. The title, for example, refers not only to the crow’s generous intellectual gifts, but their habit of leaving offerings to people who are nice to them.

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