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The Crow Paradox
July 28, 2009 10:24 PM   Subscribe

Crows can tell people apart. Can you tell crows apart?
posted by Artw (72 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
This was a fascinating story, and it's really creepy that Crow B will caw at a person when prompted by Crow A, and then later, somewhere else entirely, Crow B will caw at that same person and prompt Crows C, D, E, etc to caw at him as well. And they all will remember him and caw at him in the future and prompt more crows.

Maybe it's a defensive tactic to label potential threats and warn other, even unrelated crows, or maybe crows are dicks.
posted by Science! at 10:33 PM on July 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


One person might feed them, another person might shoot them...so it pays for a crow to pay attention.

Crows haven't been paying attention if they didn't react to the Dick Cheney mask.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:34 PM on July 28, 2009 [6 favorites]


I've often wondered if the reason that crows are somewhat reviled by many people is because their sentience is seen as a bit of a threat, if only obliquely.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:37 PM on July 28, 2009


That test cheats like hell. The original picture they give you is deliberately designed to obscure the crow's salient features, and then the other pictures are designed to exploit your lack of ability to perceive the crow correctly in the first frame.
posted by Malor at 10:47 PM on July 28, 2009 [5 favorites]


I like crows. Crows are clever. Seagulls doing similar things are, however, not clever: They're sinister.
posted by Artw at 10:47 PM on July 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


When I was a student at university, the bus stop I used was underneath a nut tree. The crows there would most often drop the nuts on the road for the cars to crush, but now and then someone would be standing there and they'd decide it was more fun to drop the nuts on his head. I don't recall if it was always the same person but they were certainly picking who would get nailed. Once it bounced off the head you'd hear raucous caws from up in the tree.

I've always liked ravens more than standard crows (ruffled heads & all) but I think they're all clever and fun to watch.
posted by Salmonberry at 10:48 PM on July 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Be good to crows. Or to crow, if you can't tell crow from crow. Ice cream for crow.
posted by pracowity at 10:51 PM on July 28, 2009


I quite like the wily crow - unlike its evil cousin, the hated magpie - but I agree with Malor that this quiz is unfair.
And not just because I sucked at it.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:54 PM on July 28, 2009


The main thing that bugs me about crows is that they've coopted a useful distance metric. "As the crow flies", they say. But to me, the crow flies to the next meal, waits a while, then flies to the next meal.

I don't want meals in my metrics.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:54 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I truly, legitimately hate most birds, but I loved this story. I've never given much thought to crows, but it appears that they are some clever little bastards.

I thought the caveman experiment was quite interesting, but slightly flawed. If I'm interpreting the story correctly, there was only one caveman mask involved. If the original Crow Molester wore it and then passed it along to the other subjects, isn't it hypothetically possible that some of his scent/pheremones/whatever rubbed off on the mask and *that* is what the crows were picking up on? Or what if they were attune to some other non-visual cues that we might not be aware of?

These issues could have been eliminated by using two separate but identical masks--one for the Crow Molester, one for the other people, that way, the only information the crows have to work with is purely visual.

Or perhaps I'm over-thinking a plate of birds.
posted by chara at 10:55 PM on July 28, 2009


I recognise the individual Magpies that come to visit my back yard. Beak shape, eye shape, plumage patterns and each has individual quirks of movement that identify them. It only takes patience and observation to learn to spot these things.

I suspect that our ancient ancestors had the ability to recognise individual animals, just as ancient troubadours, bards and others were able to memorise vast texts of myth and saga. Simply skills that we don't use because we don't need them.

Modern man is lazy. Does not mean he does not have ability.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 11:07 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


just as ancient troubadours, bards and others were able to memorise vast texts of myth and saga.

Total derail, but to this very day there are hundreds of thousands of people who have memorized the entire Qu'ran. Any area with a sizable Muslim population has dozens of them.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:14 PM on July 28, 2009


I truly, legitimately hate most birds

Seriously? Any particular reason?

/a bird-lover, despite having once been stalked by cassowary
posted by brundlefly at 11:15 PM on July 28, 2009


I totally identified three crows correctly. I am the crow whisperer. Oh yeah.
posted by stray at 11:23 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]




This has been linked a number of times on MeFi, including by me a couple of times, but I'll do it again: Crows are frighteningly intelligent. In Tokyo, they've devised a method of using traffic to crack nuts -- and they even understand how to use crosswalks to eat the shattered bits safely.

There are human children that wouldn't be clever enough to figure that out.
posted by Malor at 11:39 PM on July 28, 2009


A friend of mine just had her book about crows released a couple of days ago and has been busy promoting it, so I was expectomg she was going to be part of the interview. Who knew crows were such a hot topic.
posted by camcgee at 11:40 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I truly, legitimately hate most birds

Who are you, Tippi Hedrin? What's wrong with birds?
posted by pracowity at 11:49 PM on July 28, 2009


Crows haven't been paying attention if they didn't react to the Dick Cheney mask.

They only react if someone is wearing a mask of Harry Whittington near by.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 11:54 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


brundlefly:Seriously? Any particular reason?

Several.

1) When I was a kid, I was attacked by birds at an amusement park. They tried to eat whatever delicious portable pastry I was eating at the time. I think I just dropped it and flailed about, screaming.

2) Birds think my (freshly washed) car is their own private shit-house. Not cool.

3) I don't like the way that they look at me. My logical mind knows that their unsettling gaze is just a result of the positioning of their eyes and has little to do with any deviant or malicious intentions, but I still don't trust them.

4) Sometimes they hang out inside CostCo and swoop down to grab a free sample when they think no one's looking.

5) I love earthworms (not to eat, I just appreciate their existence). Birds eat earthworms. I'm not down with that.

But, counter-point: Birds also eat the bugs in my veggie garden, so I guess they're good for something. And their songs are nice.

I'm not an active, militant bird hater; I'm not going to go to the bird house at my local zoo and start shooting the place up. I'm more of a passive, closet-case: I might pass on email forwards about how birds are being used to pass on info to terrorist cells, I make offensive jokes about birds to my non-bird friends, and if my child every came home with a bird....oh, how the feathers would fly.
posted by chara at 11:55 PM on July 28, 2009 [24 favorites]


Good ol' Hitchcock was onto something, all right.

"Hundreds of fiber-optic cables have been slashed open by crows scrounging high-tech stuffing for their nests."
posted by Twang at 12:03 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I too cannot tell crows apart, I have the same problem with white people.
posted by signalnine at 12:11 AM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


All perfectly good reasons, chara. But be sure to take into account the fact that they're dinosaurs, which makes them automatically awesome.
posted by brundlefly at 12:18 AM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


I like crows. Crows are clever. Seagulls doing similar things are, however, not clever: They're sinister.
posted by Artw at 6:47 AM on July 29 [+] [!]

Seagulls are quite rightly known as flying rats. I've witnessed them swoop down and take food out of a persons hand.

I dont think you could call either 'clever' they are just following natural in-built instincts, they arent doing anything out of the ordinary.

Practically every dog on earth can track things down just by it's smell; but I dont think we are at risk of the world being overtaken by Canines.
posted by MontySwan at 12:23 AM on July 29, 2009


I love crows. In my old neighborhood, I swear they liked me, too, they'd follow me around and hang out in my yard to the exclusion of all the other yards. (And for no good reason -- no tasty snacks or the like -- in a densely populated inner-ring-suburb of Cleveland, Ohio).

Being both a little bit superstitious and part Viking, I think I'm genetically programmed to like crows.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:27 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, I in fact cannot tell the Counting Crows apart from any other 90's alt rock outfit.
posted by clearly at 12:43 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


5) I love earthworms (not to eat, I just appreciate their existence). Birds eat earthworms. I'm not down with that.

Native earthworms are OK. Invaders should be eradicated before they destroy the forests. Go, birds!

Also, one of the funniest plays in the world is about birds.

Also, the goose is a noble being!

[end of proper gander]
posted by pracowity at 12:44 AM on July 29, 2009


But some of my best friends are crows!
posted by Rhaomi at 12:45 AM on July 29, 2009


Modern man is lazy. Does not mean he does not have ability.
Get back to me when we find prehistoric man's secret to maintaining reliable communications network infrastructure and scaling commodity hardware.

Just because we're using our brains for different kinds of tasks doesn't mean that we're lazy.
posted by verb at 12:49 AM on July 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


Most birds have a pretty poor sense of smell, ...
Goes and looks up article to the contrary.

Never mind.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:42 AM on July 29, 2009




"Get back to me when we find prehistoric man's secret to maintaining reliable communications network infrastructure and scaling commodity hardware."

Yes, of course, because that is an entirely logical argument.

/rollseyes
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 3:26 AM on July 29, 2009


"Crows can tell people apart. Can you tell crows apart?"

They all look / sound alike to me, unfortunately.
posted by markkraft at 4:27 AM on July 29, 2009


I got it right first time, every time. The secret is in the beak hairs.

I'm not joking.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:36 AM on July 29, 2009


... unlike its evil cousin, the hated magpie

don't be talking smack about magpies!
posted by jammy at 4:52 AM on July 29, 2009


Seagulls are quite rightly known as flying rats. I've witnessed them swoop down and take food out of a persons hand.

My sister still hates seagulls because when we went to Sea World twenty years ago one stole her hamburger right as she bit into it.
posted by sugarfish at 6:03 AM on July 29, 2009


Better start cashing that skill in, stray.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 6:05 AM on July 29, 2009


Sometimes they hang out inside CostCo and swoop down to grab a free sample when they think no one's looking.
So? They're free samples.

And before you say "free to Costco members", they're in the store, aren't they? They therefore obviously showed their membership IDs to the greeter.
posted by Flunkie at 6:19 AM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


And I hereby submit the greatest animated GIF of all time.
posted by Flunkie at 6:23 AM on July 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


Flunkie: And before you say "free to Costco members", they're in the store, aren't they? They therefore obviously showed their membership IDs to the greeter.

That's what pisses me off! They *don't* have membership IDs, unless they paid their fees with twigs and birdshit and eggs filled with their unborn progeny. If that's the case, can I get in on that payment plan too? I want my $50 back.
posted by chara at 6:44 AM on July 29, 2009


They *don't* have membership IDs, unless they paid their fees with twigs and birdshit and eggs filled with their unborn progeny.
Maybe they paid with coins.
posted by Flunkie at 7:13 AM on July 29, 2009


"Get back to me when we find prehistoric man's secret to maintaining reliable communications network infrastructure and scaling commodity hardware."

Yes, of course, because that is an entirely logical argument.
I suppose you thought "Modern man is lazy because we can't tell two crows apart when we walk down the street" was some Plato-level rhetoric, then?

The point is that there is no reason for a modern human to do expend energy recognizing individual birds unless they spend a great deal of time interacting with them. Saying that humanity is lazy for that reason is like saying that machinists are lazy because they don't hunt mammoth.
posted by verb at 7:23 AM on July 29, 2009


I am apparently awesome at crow recognition, which is odd, because I suck at person recognition. I like many crows better than many people, though, so there's that. Crows are awesome; they have a sense of humor.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:27 AM on July 29, 2009


What is it with people and crows? I love crows. Crows are awesome. They are also somewhat scary, but that's part of what makes them awesome. This FPP just confirms their awesomeness. Like bitter-girl.com, I think I'm genetically predisposed to like crows. I also like rats and seagulls, so there's your trifecta of animal world antipathy all rolled into one.
posted by blucevalo at 7:35 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


yeah, crows are awesome.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:42 AM on July 29, 2009


I think if I was around certain crows, I could recognize them.

To be realistic, though, most people cannot tell which is which of two brown horses, even if they are very different sizes and builds. Or gray horses. Or paint horses. Has driven me batty since I was a child.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:46 AM on July 29, 2009


Tokyo is home home to untold millions of crows. They are EVERYWHERE. Ad I've known for a long time that there are crows in my neighborhood who recognize me. See, I'm kind of obsessed with crows, and I'm always photographing them, and they don't like to be photographed. Pointing a camera at a crow will often make the bird edgy. They know you're pointing it at them. And they often fly off the wire or building or limb or antenna they were perching on just prior to your aiming at them.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:56 AM on July 29, 2009


I read once in a birding magazine's "Ask an Ornithologist" section that crows are the smartest of all bird species—supposedly they have the intelligence of a 2 or 3 year-old human. The interesting thing was that on the aviary intelligence spectrum, they sit alone; ornithologists might debate over the second-smartest bird, but they're fairly unanimous about crows holding the top spot.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:17 AM on July 29, 2009


One one hand, I like crows, because the only neighborhoods that are grackle-free around here are ones where crows have moved in. Of the two, crows are to be preferred.

On the other hand, there's nothing surprising in why many people haven't liked them; they're food competitors because they are smart. Your live-and-let-live attitude would be different if they were eating all your crops and figuring out ways around your clever traps.

See also: raccoons, bears, rats, wolves. They're amazing and smart; so much so that if they grew thumbs and slightly better brains, we might be toast.
posted by emjaybee at 8:20 AM on July 29, 2009


I can easily tell crows apart; the first one knew kung-fu and the second one spoke with some accent and clearly didn't know how to fight. Anyone paying attention should be able to spot this.

Jokes aside though, I love me some crows (the whole reason I signed up for an account here was to speak on the subject of this bird.) But this study is somewhat flawed in that it doesn't address why humans have a hard time identifying specific crows apart from one another in photos, and the reason is actually pretty simple; crows, like most birds, have fairly dynamic head shapes. They can change the way their feathers are laying on their bodies (generally because they are excited or trying to regulate their temperature) and this will change their look entirely. Their face may double in size, and because of the features we key in on when doing facial recognition, humans have a hard time processing this. Another factor is the beak, which is constantly growing and being worn down, so you might see a bird with a beak where the tip overhangs quite a bit, and then on a different day, the same bird might have a beak where the ends line up perfectly. Same bird, looks different.

Now, if they were showing video, it might be easier because birds do develop their own personalities, but then you are not making your identification on appearance alone.
posted by quin at 8:29 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don't forget about the New Caledonian crow, which can make and use tools. Previously, in the blue.

Corvids in general are pretty great. There's a large group (okay, okay, a murder) of crows that roosts at night in the trees across the street from my house. I can see - and hear - them coming in in the evening. First a few will circle, calling; more join them. They fly in great circles in the neighborhood, calling to everyone (crows) and more and more join together, coming from various directions, and with much fluttering and talking they settle into the trees.

I have had gray jays sit on my knees and attempt to take the sandwich out of my hand. I have watched pairs of ravens play in the updrafts of the hills - they love to fly upside down. There's at least one pair of ravens in our neighborhood who take it upon themselves to school the juvenile redtails that are reliably produced each year by the local rtha pair - the ravens almost never harass the local adults, but will chase and tease the juveniles.
posted by rtha at 8:36 AM on July 29, 2009


That settles it, the time has come to treay crows not as pests, but as clever beasts, but as equals. Together, hand in claw, we would be unstoppable. Hear me now my brothers, be you run or glide, we must join or we must perish!

Man and Crow! Hand and Talon! For peace! for victory! for shiny things!
posted by The Whelk at 9:09 AM on July 29, 2009 [10 favorites]


Soon the whole country's gonna be nothing but crows.

Well, I for one welcome our new corvid overlords. When I went to school in suburban Tacoma I used to toss the bread out on the back lawn whenever it started getting moldy, and the crows by and large would make short work of it. I used to toss them fries and things walking back and forth from the student dining hall, too. I'm fond of them.
posted by Caduceus at 9:18 AM on July 29, 2009


Pointing a camera at a crow will often make the bird edgy.

Everything makes crows edgy. That's one of the reasons for their aforementioned awesomeness. They're not just cheery little colorful songbirds that hop songfully from branch to branch without a care in the world.
posted by blucevalo at 10:34 AM on July 29, 2009


The crows that make it are the guys that grab the shiny thing at any time. Get in at 3am, get up at 4. That's why there ain't a crow I know that don't take speed.
posted by Artw at 10:45 AM on July 29, 2009


My other half studied crow behavior in college. They are totally awesome. A few years ago we had a crow family in our neighborhood that we were able to distinguish from other crows not by look, but by sound: the patriarch, whom we named Jacob, had a distinctly hoarse call that we referred to as "his tubercular caw." He passed the hoarseness down to his offspring, as well, so it was always easy to recognize a neighborhood crow from "our" crow family. One of the fledgelings, Isaiah, died when he was first learning how to fly (because birds' bones and skulls are so thin, a seemingly minor flight mishap is enough to kill), so we had him stuffed, and he now sits on the shelf at the top of the stairs, his pleasant beady eyes greeting us whenever we go into the office or down the hallway.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:28 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm really late to the party here, but here goes anyway:
In downtown Seattle (Piorneer Square) several years ago, I see a guy with binoculars trained on birds, or so I assumed. I sidled up to him and said "What do you have?" (birder speak for Whatcha lookin' at?). He didn't respond immediately, but when he did, I had run into one of the bird researchers for the (now completed) UW Urban Crow Project. This guy had banded most of the birds in the vicinity - and said that many of the birds knew him - as proof, we had to move (quickly) because a particular female he'd banded (along with her offspring) spied him and started shitting on him from the wire above us. I had never noticed the crows nests in the various trees downtown, but once I learned to look for them, they were obvious to me (curious, because crows are notoriously crafty about hiding their nests).

Also, my husband photographs crows so he can draw them - first he baits them with popcorn, tossed into a shopping cart at mall (usually near Target), then he rolls up his window but for the top few inches, and shields himself from view. Thus 'camoflaged', he can shoot to his hearts content. If they actually see him (as opposed to his truck), they quickly leave. When he did this regularly, it got so he'd have a huge crowd within minutes - we're pretty sure they recognized the vehicle.

AND we're not so sure about 'crows everywhere' - here in semi-rural Western Washington, we've noticed a startling re-urbanization of ravens. We even had a pair come and feed at the aforementioned parking lot at a mall! Really most remarkable, if you've ever tried to bait/photograph ravens; they are incredibly smart and shy/wary of humans.
camcgee - that looks like a very good book - I'll put it on the list of possible presents for my husband.
posted by dbmcd at 11:51 AM on July 29, 2009


I took the test several rimes before posting. I got it right every time with little effort. These are some of the actual fuzzy concepts I used: The good looking one, the lewd one, the shy one, the one with the neat feathers on the beak and the one with the messy feathers and the crusty eyes.

I've been looking at crow images on GIS, same thing happens.

The interesting thing is that I can not recognize people in pictures very well. If I want to know if it is the same model in two pictures, I have to start measuring angles between pupils and nose, count the whorls in the ear, etc.

I love crows and ravens and all kinds of other birds. I've always had, but it became serious one time when I was collecting mushrooms in crow country. They were very interested, followed me around and seemed to be having fun watching us trip. They are authentically curious and smart, they are the non annoying cat.
posted by dirty lies at 12:07 PM on July 29, 2009


Crows hate Martin Luther King Day:
http://standardmischief.com/blog/2006/01/18/crows-hate-martin-luther-king-day/
posted by Jacqueline at 1:35 PM on July 29, 2009


As Ursula Vernon said, we're all in for a world of hurt as soon as crows figure out how to use matches.
posted by baf at 1:55 PM on July 29, 2009


Flunkie: Maybe they paid with coins.
Touché.
posted by chara at 2:27 PM on July 29, 2009


I read a true story in which a woman recounted being saved from a mountain lion by the frantic warnings of crows. Their shrieks and flappings alerted her to its presence as it stalked her up the mountain. She believed that the crows were angels sent from God to alert her to the presence of the mountain lion and allow her to save herself. A wildlife expert said that what they were actually doing was yelling "HEY MOUNTAIN LION! She's right here! We get the leftovers!!!"

Another crow once stole a friend's pack of cigarettes, flew to the top of a power pole, sat there and broke every cigarette in half and threw it back down at my friend. He did not take that as a message from God to stop smoking, unfortunately.

I love crows.
posted by OolooKitty at 2:56 PM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


The other day crows raised hell when a raccoon crossed across our yard.
posted by Artw at 3:12 PM on July 29, 2009


Crows rock and are quite shy, at least here in Australia. Magpies, on the other hand, derive a great deal of pleasure from beating your ass and generally ruining your shit.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:40 PM on July 29, 2009


Can you tell crows apart?

By sight or by taste?
posted by jonmc at 5:52 PM on July 29, 2009


Hey, jonmc, everybody's gotta eat crow every now and then, right?

(I've heard ice-cream-fed crow is particularly tasty!)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:55 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Love the corvid family, all of them. They're all smarter than the average bird (or person), but what I really love is their sense of humor, their joy, their flashes of righteous anger and their great expressions of affection for family.

The Steller's Jay in the Western mountains, the Scrub Jay in the foothills, the common dirty city crow, and especially the big bushy ravens living out here with me in the desert, they are all great. There's a mountain with a nice updraft nearby, and I've seen scores of ravens doing the most insane aerobatics, for no purpose beyond the thrill of diving 500 feet and making an insane recovery before they impale themselves on a Joshua Tree.

Sadly for the other, traditionally pretty birds I also like to have around, the ravens are really good at taking over habitat. At a campfire talk up at Tuolumne last summer, a ranger (in crow costume) explained how ravens weren't really seen around Yosemite until the 1950s, when the first significant piles of human garbage began collecting in the park.
posted by kenlayne at 10:11 PM on July 29, 2009


Can crows tell each other apart?
posted by pravit at 10:49 PM on July 29, 2009


so what exactly is paradoxial about this?

Also they only tried facial recognition. Maybe the crow would fear all men wearing a blue hawaiian shirt.
posted by fightoplankton at 12:02 AM on July 30, 2009


Maybe the crow would fear all men wearing a blue hawaiian shirt.

When animals recoil from fire we don't consider it a sign of higher intelligence.
posted by The Whelk at 12:28 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Malor, thanks for your post on crows in Japan. I have a fond love of the work of David Attenborough. Which lead me to google for his Wiki page. I'm glad to see that he has taken on more of a mantle of fighting the good fight of logic and reason. I was also very glad to find that he is still with us.

Yay, David Attenborough!!!

Oh, and yeah... Corvids rock!
posted by PROD_TPSL at 1:25 AM on July 30, 2009




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