The birds that fear death
October 2, 2015 3:53 PM   Subscribe

A study published in the journal Animal Behavior found that crows can recognize their fellow dead crows and learn to avoid the dangerous circumstances associated with death. The BBC described the study, which involved a "masked individual playing bad cop, arriving on the scene holding up a dead crow."

First a "good cop" would train the crows to expect food in a certain area. Then a "bad cop" would come, bringing a dead crow instead of treats. (They wore a mask so that the crows wouldn't learn their real face—crows can recognize human faces for years, and "teach others to scold loudly at the dubious face in question.") The results:
• Crows took longer to approach food in areas associated with conspecific death.
• Crows scolded humans previously seen near a dead crow, a hawk and a hawk with a dead crow.
• A hawk with a dead crow elicited the strongest immediate antipredator behaviours.
• Dead pigeons did not elicit similar antipredator responses in crows or pigeons.
Previously on Metafilter: crows who make tools, give gifts, and demonstrate self-awareness.
posted by Rangi (38 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
A crow got run over on the street where I live awhile back, and there were hella crows overhead for a long time, circling, hanging out in nearby trees, and making quite a racket. I don't speak corvish but I got the sense they were saying:

HEY HUMANS

FUCK YOU

posted by prize bull octorok at 3:56 PM on October 2, 2015 [26 favorites]


If only insects would learn this trick.
posted by Dashy at 3:56 PM on October 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


I for one welcome our crow overlords. Not "new", of course, the crows have always been our overlords. I love toiling in the underground sugar caves.
posted by bleep at 4:01 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


My Irish relatives have known this for forever. One of them leaves a dead crow hanging on a small platform in the garden to scare off the others. Whenever it gets a little rotten, he pulls another one out of his crow trap, kills it, and hangs it up as a replacement. Seems to work for him.
posted by crazy with stars at 4:05 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I shoot starlings and eurasian doves once in a while, because they are invasive and bad for native birds. If I walk out on the porch, they ignore me. If I walk out with a gun, they all clear out. Even birds a lot dumber than crows can learn a surprising amount, and crows are ridiculously smart.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:11 PM on October 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


researchers introduced a lone mask-clad individual to an area where the crows knew to expect a tasty treat from the experimenter

I'd be scared too if Leatherface walked into my crib carrying a dead homie.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 4:11 PM on October 2, 2015 [36 favorites]


...walked into my crib carrying a dead homie.

That's going to haunt my dreams this entire weekend.
posted by not_the_water at 4:20 PM on October 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


Ants always notice when I kill one of theirs, and their little trail toward the cat food bowl scatters real quickly.
I don't need to wear a mask or wave it at them either!
posted by TenaciousB at 4:20 PM on October 2, 2015


Crows give you that sideeye right in the face with a look that says, "I am smart as fucking shit, caw."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:21 PM on October 2, 2015 [12 favorites]


I wonder if we're going to see unintended consequences from corvid behavioral studies. I wouldn't put it out of the range of possibility that crow populations all over the Americas and Europe start harassing anyone wearing latex masks.
posted by figurant at 4:47 PM on October 2, 2015 [15 favorites]


Making Halloween especially exciting!
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 4:49 PM on October 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


I can't believe we're doing this spooky stuff as experiments on crows. That picture of a masked scientist wearing a scary nearly-human-looking mask while displaying a dead crow will give me nightmares. Crows seemed spooky to me before reading this, but now humans seem pretty spooky.
posted by doteatop at 4:52 PM on October 2, 2015 [15 favorites]


If I were a crow and I saw this, I would just think "What the fuck is wrong with those people? That crow probably had a family, damn it"
posted by clockzero at 4:57 PM on October 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


Why the creepy mask? Why not do what they do with baby otters and just wear a poncho and solar shield?
posted by clorox at 5:10 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


.
posted by just super agressive birds, generally at 5:11 PM on October 2, 2015 [24 favorites]


This summer I carried a beautiful blue rug across my shoulder and across First Hill. A few blocks after passing the Frye I started attracting the attention of crows, I think because of how carrying the rug altered my gait and profile.

They would fly a block ahead of me, make a signal, and then quietly watch until I passed them by. They also landed near rooftop corners, and if I changed direction they would just hop a few steps to the side and still have eyes on me. It felt deliberate, organized, intelligent, and slightly threatening. Really it was just super neat[slyt] to have witnessed it.

Then later that night someone broke into my place and stole my rug and my sunflower seeds.
posted by tychotesla at 5:27 PM on October 2, 2015 [16 favorites]


I'm not saying we open up diplomatic relations with The Crows but we should attend a few murders.
posted by The Whelk at 5:29 PM on October 2, 2015 [11 favorites]


Similar, but with Scrub Jays.
posted by primalux at 5:50 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


GOD: Okay, I'm handing out special abilities today. Crows, you're the smartest species, you get to pick first.

CROWS: That's easy. We'll take Flight.

GOD: You sure you don't want Opposable Thumbs?

CROWS: Uh, yeah. We're good with Flight.

[millenia later]

GOD: Psyche!

CROWS: Son of a bitch
posted by prize bull octorok at 5:50 PM on October 2, 2015 [36 favorites]



I'm not saying we open up diplomatic relations with The Crows but we should attend a few murders.


I cannot decide whether I should rather be Envoy to the Crows or an attaché at the Embassy thereto. I do love an accent aigu, but then again, not as much as a grave.
posted by Diablevert at 6:02 PM on October 2, 2015 [13 favorites]


I cannot decide whether I should rather be Envoy to the Crows or an attaché at the Embassy thereto. I do love an accent aigu, but then again, not as much as a grave.

That was masterful.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:10 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


""They would be holding a dead crow, not violently, not reenacting a death scene, just holding it like they were picking it up to throw it in rubbish, palms outstretched like you might hold a plate of hors d'oeuvre.""

Humans are creepy.
posted by xarnop at 6:15 PM on October 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


The ants I've dealt with seemed to notice their dead, but didn't particularly treat it as a sign of danger. They would attempt to drag the dead ones back to their nest and would work together to carry the body. But the other ants not carrying the dead ant would continue to go about their business as if nothing was going on. It certainly didn't dissuade them from taking over my kitchen that summer.
posted by downtohisturtles at 7:37 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


A study published in the journal Human Behavior found that humans can recognize their fellow dead humans and learn to avoid the dangerous circumstances associated with death. The BBC described the study, which involved a "masked crow playing bad cop, arriving on the scene holding up a dead human."

First a "good" crow would train the humans to expect food in a certain area. Then a "bad" crow would come, bringing a dead human instead of treats. (They wore a mask so that the humans wouldn't learn their real face—humans can recognize crow faces for years, and "teach others to scold loudly at the dubious face in question.") The results:

• Humans took longer to approach food in areas associated with conspecific death.
• Humans scolded crows previously seen near a dead human, a hawk and a hawk with a dead human.
• A hawk with a dead human elicited the strongest immediate antipredator behaviours.
• Dead pigeons did not elicit similar antipredator responses in humans or pigeons.

Previously on Metafilter: humans who make tools, give gifts, and demonstrate self-awareness.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:03 PM on October 2, 2015 [11 favorites]


Uh, yeah. We're good with Flight.

Still seems like the right choice to me.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 8:48 PM on October 2, 2015


That's going to haunt my dreams this entire weekend.

Yeah, no kidding, I'm not even a crow and I would stay well away from any area I'd seen someone like that in, food or no food.
posted by No-sword at 8:49 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


> GOD: You sure you don't want Opposable Thumbs?

CROWS: Uh, yeah. We're good with Flight.

...Wait wait wait! Also, Tiny Dope Little Britches please.

GOD: Oooh, nice call. Yes, ok.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 8:59 PM on October 2, 2015 [9 favorites]


We moved to a new house this spring, after crows picked their nesting locations and had their babies but before those babies learned to fly. We have two dogs, and one of them is QUICK. She took out not one but TWO fledgling crows over the course of a few weeks. I felt terrible, because I love crows, but we had to let the dogs in the yard. We tried to give them lots of warning after she got the first one, but I guess they just weren't fast enough.

And indeed, every time she, our other dog, or either of us went outside for weeks afterward, we had the whole neighborhood's crows standing in trees outside yelling in corvish, "Fuck you! Fuck you and your evil dog! We were here first! This is bullshit!" Crows would literally fly over the dog in question and try to take shits on her. The dog who killed the crows would bark back at them like, "Yeah, go ahead and yell! I'll take you too!" while the other dog would slink off, pee as quickly as he could and come back and wait on the porch until we let him go back inside. It was really, really unpleasant for awhile in our yard and I could tell all the neighbors were wondering what the hell we'd done to make all the crows so mad. We took to going out after dark when most of them were already quiet for the night. We wouldn't let our small daughter play in back.

The only thing I kept telling myself was, at least crows are smart, and they'll remember our dog next year when they're picking where to nest, and we'll never have to deal with this again. At least I can count on crows to remember, and tell their friends. Which is why I like them in the first place.
posted by town of cats at 10:05 PM on October 2, 2015 [19 favorites]


I find it hilarious that they were not at all concerned about the dead pigeon. Crows were like, "Dead pigeon? Big surprise. That idiot probably keeled over from a heart attack after eating bread all day every day. Or walked right up to a human and got stepped on. We crows would never fall victim to whatever dumb shit killed that guy." Basically, crows are the smug assholes of the bird world.
posted by gueneverey at 5:57 AM on October 3, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't speak corvish
yelling in corvish

Did y'all just invent a new word? Or am I just not cool enough?

(Seriously, just went on a Googly spiral trying to find the origin of corvish and came up empty)
posted by slipthought at 6:15 AM on October 3, 2015


Crows, along with ravens and magpies and a bunch of other birds I'm not thinking of at the moment, belong to the family "corvids." Hence "corvish."
posted by holborne at 6:56 AM on October 3, 2015


Nature's A Murder of Crows is a good documentary on this and other behavior (that they can impart what a face looks like to their offspring is crazy).

A couple of years ago I was in Venice Beach waiting for friends to go to dinner. Whatever combination of me, my clothes and the Razor I was wheeling about in caused this one crow to caw loudly above me. I moved down a block, the crow followed, perched right above me, and continued to caw.

This continued for TEN MINUTES. I couldn't leave because I was waiting to go to dinner, and that crow drove me four blocks away before it left and I had to find another route back to the restaurant.

Whoever that dude was that I resembled: F**K YOU.
posted by linux at 8:46 AM on October 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


When I lived in Pakistan my friend an I use to mess with the crows by doing things like acting like we were fighting with a crow we had caught (wad of black fabric) the crows would get hysterical and we would have hundreds of crows circling the house for hours.
We would be harassed every time we went out and I had my hat grabbed of my head one time.
I went back for a visit about 5 years later and the crows still freaked out.
posted by boilermonster at 9:11 AM on October 3, 2015 [8 favorites]


@town of cats, my cat killed a baby Jay one summer. I ended up having to keep him in the rest of the summer, because the jays would dive-bomb him on sight.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:35 AM on October 3, 2015


Two days ago, there was a sudden cacophony that brought several of us out of our homes. I followed the noise and found a Hitchcockian scene of crows circling and swooping. It was a little terrifying to be beneath that. Maybe 5 yards ahead of me was a magnificent hawk. It had taken down a crow and had it pinned, still struggling, to the ground.

When I saw the crow was still alive, I went and grabbed a broom, because what a great idea to try to shoo a bird of prey with a wingspan wider than I am tall, from an animal (its meal!) that wouldn't have survived its injuries anyway. Happily, by the time I returned, they had moved west and tree-ward.

I guess it wouldn't have been any nicer seeing a fuzzy little squirrel being killed, but I really have a fondness for crows. It sucks to know I might be associated with the whole thing. I've been sporadically (if unsuccessfully - I need better treats) trying to make friends with them.
posted by moira at 3:14 PM on October 3, 2015 [3 favorites]


I walked out my front door this past April at the sound of a lot of hollered Corvish, to find a fresh dead crow smack dab in the front of the property. I endured the murder's complaints, as I emotionally shoveled their buddy into the garbage bin. Shortly thereafter, my water broke. And labor didn't start, and didn't start.... and, well, things got scary that way, as I employed previously-considered wackadoo measures like acupuncture and tinctures of cohosh to try to get the ol' uterus up-and-at-'em. And you'd better BELIEVE I was trying to parse that damn corvid omen.

In the end, I believe that a crow dropping dead in front of your house means "peculiar doesn't equal unnatural, and everyone might make a ruckus, but you can get the job done." In other words, my baby was born gloriously healthy. Although not named Corbin, that was in the running. I love corvids.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:18 PM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Alliser Thorne trolls Jon Snow
posted by homunculus at 10:40 PM on October 3, 2015


It's been a week since the hawk incident, and it's very quiet around here. I see and hear crows in the more distant area, and there's the occasional individual, but they're not really congregating nearby. No more early morning alarms, no afternoon conversations. I think we had a juvenile crow this year - I kept hearing the most adorable gurgle-mutters mixed in with the usual territorial caws. I haven't heard anything like that this week, and I really miss it.

A neighbor lady has had a bird feeder out for years, and they liked to eat from it. Maybe they'll come back sooner than later.
posted by moira at 10:39 AM on October 8, 2015


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