26 August 2008
In pretty much any part of the world, crows, jays, or magpies - the group of birds known as corvids - are a daily fact of life, animals so common that most people don't even notice them. This is especially true in Seattle, which is rumored to harbor the world's largest population of crows (either the American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, or the Northwestern crow, Corvus caurinus, depending on who you believe). Whether or not this has ever been reliably demonstrated, it is a fact that Seattle is home to a remarkably large number of the animals, most of which roost directly above the house of one of my best friends from middle school. At my family's house, our backyard was frequented by a more colorful relative, the electric-blue, crested Steller's jay. When we went camping in the mountains, we were invariably plagued by gray jays ("camp-robbers," as they're aptly known to many people) and Clark's nutcrackers, and if we headed east of the Cascades we saw more than our share of black-billed magpies and Northern ravens. I've always had a certain fondness for corvids, not only because I saw so much of them while growing up, but because they are among the smartest animals on the face of the planet (there are, of course, lots of angsty people out there who identify with crows because they are seen as dark and misunderstood; the irony of this Gothic fascination is that corvids in general - and crows in particular - are intensely social animals). Corvids maintain extremely complex social structures, have been observed using tools, are inveterate problem-solvers, have remarkable memories, and are apparently capable of quite sophisticated communication. Further proof of the intellectual capabilities of crows and their relatives was provided this week by John Marzluff at the University of Washington, who suggests that not only are Seattle's crows capable of remembering people's appearance, they are able to communicate the appearance of individuals perceived as dangerous to other crows. I'm more convinced of the first point than the second, but read the article and decide for yourself; regardless of the extent of their skills of recognition, the study is another testament to the complexity of the corvid mind. Most of us will never have the opportunity of seeing chimps or gorillas in the wild, and while dolphins are nothing new to many of us, few people ever get to see them up close an in their element. Fortunately, we all (unless we live in Antarctica) have the opportunity of observing animals on nearly a daily basis that belong in the same brainy category as primates and cetaceans. Bear that in mind next time you see a jay foraging in your yard, a murder of crows in a tree, or even a magpie raiding a trash can; each and every corvid out there is a remarkable animal, as will become quickly apparent if you spend even a little time observing their behavior.