Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ask a Zookeeper: Literary Crows?

I'm so excited to answer my very first "Ask a Zookeeper" question!  (I'm going to try to run this series every other Wednesday until I get the hang of it, and then I may increase to every week.)

This question comes from Jaye Robin Browne of Hanging on to Wonder. She writes MG and YA books, is represented by Steven Chudney at The Chudney Agency and also volunteers for her local Humane Society. She writes:

Q: "Could a crow be taught to read?"
A: Short answer: "Absolutely!" Long answer: "Define 'read'..."

Northwestern Crow, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
I love this question, because I didn't realize how intelligent members of the Corvid family--which also includes ravens, jays and magpies--were until a few years ago. I was working at a marine park in Florida at the time, and our Bird Department's pride and joy was a young African pied crow named Russell. (Get it? Russell Crow? *Pauses for obligatory chuckles.*) 

Russell was a star pupil, and our trainers successfully trained him an assortment of ridiculously complicated behaviors, including one where he buzzed the crowd in our theatre to the soundtrack of Top Gun. He retrieved donations and deposited them into an oversized piggy bank, and he "put himself to bed" at the end of every show, even shutting the door behind him.

African Pied Crow, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Later, at my zoo in Alaska, I met a magpie named George who possessed the apparently not-so-unique Corvid ability to mimic human speech.  She loved to blow kisses to her adoring fans, and she also said, "How are you doing?" and "Hi, George!" (Yeah, so we blew it with the gender thing. By the time we figured out she was a girl, she was already calling herself George.)

Black-Billed Magpie, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
My most amazing experience with Corvids, however, was the pair of ravens I also took care of in Alaska. Sam and Poe were both crippled with wing injuries, but that didn't stop them from maintaining a booming social life. They always vocalized and interacted with the wild ravens outside their enclosure, and I often caught them picking through their dinner, setting aside the good bits and passing the rest of their food out to their friends between the bars. This happened especially frequently during cold winter months when food was scarce.

I was floored by this, and I couldn't initially wrap my head around why on Earth Sam and Poe would engage in such an altruistic and selfless behavior. And then it occurred to me.  Sam and Poe had developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the wild ravens.  They provided the food, and the wild ravens provided the enrichment. It was a match made in Heaven.

Common Ravens, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
But I digress. This realization inspired me to do some research, and I was stunned by the wealth of knowledge available on Corvid intelligence. Not only can Corvids manipulate tools, mimic human speech, display social reasoning and demonstrate extraordinary feats of spatial memory, but they have also been proven to "recognize and ascribe numerical meaning to symbols," which suggests they may be able to “read” numbers and simple icons. 

Here's an excerpt from a recent article by Sunanda Creagh of The Conversation Literary Group:

In the latest edition of the journal Animal Behaviour, Japanese researchers describe an experiment in which eight jungle crows were presented with two containers, one with “2” written on the lid and one with “5”. The “5” container had food inside, while the “2” did not. The crows soon learned to pick the “5” container at a 70% success rate.

Other experiments tested whether the crows could differentiate between containers marked with non-numerical symbols such as shapes. The birds scored a 70 to 90% success rate picking the food-filled container for 19 out of 20 non-numerical symbol tests.

...Dr Stephen Debus, a bird expert and honorary research associate in zoology at the University of New England, said the results were interesting but not surprising because crows were renowned for their superior intelligence.

It is unclear why the birds evolved such smarts, he said “but I gather that it is probably related to their complex social organisation and also, being omnivorous in complex environments, they need to be able to find food in novel situations and solve problems in obtaining that food.”

He said he expected the study of crows to reveal more of their skills in future.

So yes, Jaye Robin, I would DEFINITELY say a crow could be taught to "read" on some level, and they can certainly discriminate and retain the differences between symbols. Pretty wild, huh??

Thanks for tuning in for my first edition of my "Ask a Zookeeper" series, and please let me know if you have any questions for future posts. I have a short list of great ones already, and I can't wait to hear more!

(Wanna learn more about Corvid intelligence? Check out this informative--and very, very funny--article from, called "Six Terrifying Ways Crows Are Way Smarter Than You Think.")


Eliza Tilton said...

love this! I'm thinking of my own question. And who knew crows were so smart!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Some smart birds. The ravens who fed their wild friends were especially amazing.

Donna Perugini said...

I have a friend who found a hurt raven and brought it back to health. She called it Elijah in reference to the ravens that fed Elijah while he was in hiding.

I was also told a story about crows. A woman would hang her laundry outside. When taking down the clothes, she kept finding dog droppings in shirt and apron pockets. The next time she hung the clothes, she watched and saw a crow that would pick up the dog's old droppings and deposit them into clothing pockets. The story ended there, so I don't know how she was able to get the crow to stop. Maybe she out smarted the crow and hung her laundry upside down.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

i really love corvids and people are always surprise when i explain to them how intelligent they are

LisaAnn said...

@Eliza: I know, right? I was never much of a bird person until I realized how crazy intelligent some birds are!

@Alex: It was so great to watch. They would remain completely silent until I locked their enclosure and walked away. Within a minute, they'd start vocalizing, and within five minutes, there'd be a line of ravens waiting for the buffet!

@Donna: Ewe! That is so hilarious! George the magpie loved to hide things around her enclosure, and she'd get seriously pissed if you accidentally found something.

@Falen: Agreed. Brilliant troublemakers, for sure!

Jenny Phresh said...

What an incredible idea for a new Weds series! Totally fun and fascinating. Crows...those lit'ry fellers. I am going to weave an animal Q into my WIP just so I can come up with something that will get an interesting answer!

Rain Laaman said...

Wow, cool. I started a story with a raven in it once, and I'm glad to see I was on the right track with their intelligence. I'm really excited about this series you're doing, LisaAnn!

LTM said...

wow! LisaAnn, that is so cool! And isn't it funny how crows are typically portrayed as being scary and/or mean or like harbingers of bad things to come... I'm thinking of Poe now. Maybe it's because they're so smart?

Very cool post. Thanks! :o) <3

Peggy Eddleman said...

I love this! Can't say I had actually wondered that question before, but it was so interesting to hear about! said...

Really fascinating post, LisaAnn!! And I definitely vote that "Ask a Zookeeper" become a regular feature. I really enjoyed it.

Lydia Kang said...

OMG, this is so fascinating! I read this with my son who is a total animal fanatic.

Jessica said...

I've always been fascinated by the ravens here in Alaska. A lot of people dislike them, because they are dumpster divers, but I'm intrigued by their enormous size, the sounds they make and I love watching them soar against the wind! I'm glad you wrote this, because it validated my belief that they really are intelligent animals!

Jaye Robin Brown said...

So I'm late to this party sort of held in my honor - but THANK YOU Lisa Ann. As you know, the crow I'm thinking of is going to have some mighty special skills. Glad it's possible in real life too!

I did have a neighborhood crow growing up. A friend had nursed it back to health and it would fly around the to all the houses. You could call it down from the tall pine trees and would come sit on your shoulder and hang out. I loved that bird.

LisaAnn said...

@JennyPhresh: For some reason, I don't think you'd have a problem coming up with something creative.

@Rain: Thanks so much! I love an excuse to "nerd out" whenever I can!

@LTM: I think that's exactly why! They're like little people with wings, and that's definitely a kinda uncomfortable thought!

@Peggy: Hahaha, and now you NEVER need to wonder!

@GirlParker: Yay! Thank you.

@Lydia: All the credit goes to you and your Medical Mondays!

@Jessica: Oh man, the wild ones at the zoo were so annoying, because they'd always steal my diets when I wasn't looking.

@Jaye Robin: Yay! So glad you like it, and congrats on your recent big news!

Dinda Amanda said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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