Masters of Deceit
May 6, 2007 8:54 PM   Subscribe

Clever Ravens: "They have a long evolutionary process of espionage and counter-espionage to build on, in the course of which they became masters of deceit and problem-solving. They got better and better at guessing the intentions of others and concealing their own."
posted by dhruva (37 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Are these birds employed by a K. Rove at the moment?
posted by zerobyproxy at 9:08 PM on May 6, 2007

I just spit water at my laptop. Thanks, zerobyproxy - I was just thinking the same thing!

I volunteer to count migrating hawks in the fall, and there are always ravens at our watchsite (a ridgetop). There's one pair in particular - we call them Edgar and Allan, of course - that performs astonishing feats of flight in the updraft that blows across the ridge. They'll hang in the air, ten feet up and twenty feet out from where we stand, and do rollovers, fly upside down - all, apparently, for fun. It's joyful to watch. Thanks, dhruva - great post!
posted by rtha at 9:20 PM on May 6, 2007

I'm not sure how closely related crows are to ravens, but they're extraordinarily smart too. (youtube, fascinating.)
posted by Malor at 9:31 PM on May 6, 2007

Crows are Corvids, too. It's a smart family.
posted by Citizen Premier at 9:35 PM on May 6, 2007

This is really something.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:40 PM on May 6, 2007

And New Caledonion crows actually make tools - using a piece of wire, a crow bent it into a hook to retrieve food at the bottom of a tube.

Corvids are cool.
posted by rtha at 9:49 PM on May 6, 2007

I love watching ravens. Two of them hang out on a hydro tower on a path behind my house every morning. There is a busy bus stop across the street - I always imagine them as an pair of old retired guys, people watching and gossiping up there on the tower.

Then the nuts come out on the trees and they start dropping them on heads. The road is right there, they can't miss it by accident. But every now and then, someone gets a little bonk on the noggin from up above...
posted by Salmonberry at 10:09 PM on May 6, 2007

..."It seems that from the point of view of the winged slyboots, large predators are little more than simpletons."

Yeah, I'd say that about sums it up.

*shakes fist skyward*
posted by Salmonberry at 10:12 PM on May 6, 2007

The are so smart, sometimes creepy too if they take an interest in you.

And umm... they can like talk .
posted by parallax7d at 10:21 PM on May 6, 2007

Ravens rock! Neat post dhruva.

Living in that same place in India with the Huntsman spiders, there were two ravens, a mother and son pair, who lived near my tiny house in the apple orchard.

There is a well known cemetary/charnal ground in Bengal, known for its yogis who live in houses made of the bones of the dead as part of their awareness of the impermanent nature of life. It's called Tarapith (pronounced tara-pete). So I called the local ravens Tara and Pete. They were serious rascals. They definitely seemed to have a sense of humor. I really loved those naughty birds. It was interesting to see them burying food, like dogs burying bones. One day when I was doing Shamatha meditation, using a small lentil as a visual focus, one of the ravens flew on the verandah and stole my bean.

Amazing and charming friendship between a wild crow and a cat.

Crows and ravens compared.

David Attenborough narrating a short video excerpt about crows being inventive.
posted by nickyskye at 10:27 PM on May 6, 2007

Already linked that "crows being inventive" vid, nicky. I think the Youtube version, in this case, is a little nicer looking.
posted by Malor at 10:56 PM on May 6, 2007

Researcher Bernd Heinrich, who is quoted in the Spiegel article, has also written a book, Mind of the Raven:
Heinrich spends hundreds of loving hours feeding roadkill fragments to endlessly hungry raven chicks, and cold days in blinds watching wild ravens squabble and frolic. He is a passionate fan of his "wolf-birds," a name he gave them when he made the central discovery of the book: that ravens in Yellowstone National Park are dependent on wolves to kill for them.
Quoth the maven, "Clever? Sure!"
posted by rob511 at 10:56 PM on May 6, 2007

Ravens make the coolest bird noises.
They say if you're in the woods and you hear a noise you can't identify, it's probably a raven.

Here's a story from Google cache.

Here's the part about the feathers and voice:

The Creator picked up a stick, and set it on fire by sticking it into the Sun. Then he handed it to Raven, saying, "I will give you this gift only once. Now hurry! Fly back to the Earth before the fire goes out!"

Off flew Raven.

On the first day, as he was flying down to Earth, sparks from the fire burnt and darkened his tail feathers.

On the second day, the fire burned brighter and the stick grew shorter, all of Raven's feathers became blackened with soot.

On the third day, the stick of fire was so short, and the fire so hot that smoke and ash blew into his mouth, and his voice became cracked and hoarse. "Caw, caw," he croaked.
posted by Twang at 11:20 PM on May 6, 2007

The residence I lived at when I was at uni had a few gangs of young crows that had worked out how to open wheelie bins.

Being students, pizza and chips made up the bulk of our diet, and the crows developed a fondness for picking the chips out of the brown paper that the chippery would wrap them in.

They would sit on the roof of the res I was living at, waiting until someone dumped something tasty in the bin.
One crow would then fly at the bin at breakneck speed, clipping the edge with its bill, just enough to lift the heavy lid a few inches. Another would fly just behind, and give the lid the extra push it needed to get past the tipping point. With the lid now firmly flipped open, one of them would jump in, haul out the chip wrappings and spend the next fifteen minuted with the gang gleefully shredding the paper and devouring any leftover chips, fish bits and god knows what else that had been folded in. It became common to see snowdrifts of methodically shredded paper the day after Austudy went through.

No way can you convince me corvids aren't bright.
posted by Jilder at 11:21 PM on May 6, 2007

The Raven's Aviary - Corvidae Sounds

Crows Encounters of the Bird Kind.

Something to crow about.

Crow funeral.

Crows hack into internest.

Hungry crows may be behind exploding toads.
posted by nickyskye at 11:49 PM on May 6, 2007

I had so many crows at my old house in SoCal, and they used to get into so much mischief ... it was like living in a neighborhood of mobsters. I started calling the flocks the Gambino Family.
posted by frogan at 11:54 PM on May 6, 2007

I was once walking down a back street in Banff, and I was treated to the sight of a bunch of ravens encircling a garbage can. While I began to puzzle out what they were up to, trash began to shoot up into the air onto the street, and was picked through by the flock. After a few minutes of this, a raven popped out of the can and joined the circle, while another flew in to take its place. Within very short order the entire contents of the garbage can were spread out on the sidewalk the tasty bits eaten, and the ravens moved on to the next can down the block.
posted by Pink Fuzzy Bunny at 12:24 AM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

My google-fu is weak today, otherwise I'd provide a pointer to the most extreme example of animal intelligence - the story in the Observer in 2005 of a New Caledonian cow called Betty which had learned to fashion wire hooks to get food.

What would have been a simple, if amusing, typo was made far funnier by the story also including background information on cows.

Also, raven trivia fans, Poe's poem The Raven is generally thought to have been inspired by Grip, Charles Dickens' (first) pet raven. Dickens bought the bird for research purposes when he was writing Barnaby Rudge - which also has a raven called Grip - but it soon became a favoured family pet. It died after eating a pound of white lead (although is not thought to be the origin of the phrase "eat lead, sucker"), Dickens had it stuffed and mounted in a case he built himself, and it is now resident on the third floor of the Philadephia Free Library - in the rare books section.
posted by Devonian at 4:11 AM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

I grew up in the southern U.S., and crows (blackbirds?) are a dime a dozen and not very interesting. I moved to Tokyo and BAM! This place is oozing with ravens. Not your garden variety blackbird but these big honkin' jet black menacing terrors. I've never seen anything like them in the U.S. They are all over the city, and the govt. is doing its best to reduce the population, but it's an uphill battle.

And yes, they're very smart. They know when people throw out garbage and hang out nearby. Sometimes, if desperate enough, they'll swoop down and snag food from some poor sap's hand.
posted by zardoz at 5:24 AM on May 7, 2007

Here's the Observer article Devonian mentions, along with their correction, and the National Geographic article that gets the species right.
posted by katemonster at 5:50 AM on May 7, 2007

Devonian - this?

Also - zardoz, crows !=blackbirds, and crows !=ravens. Crows and ravens are related, though.
posted by rtha at 5:52 AM on May 7, 2007

Paging kenlayne! (he loves him some crow stories, and this is a good one)
posted by at 6:23 AM on May 7, 2007

One of the trickiest challenges consists in making the raven sit on a bar with a piece of meat suspended vertically below it by a long string.

Irene Pepperberg ran this experiment on the parrots in her lab (using a walnut instead of meat). The young parrots who had yet to be language-trained solved the problem just like the ravens -- by pulling up on the string with their feet.

The parrots who knew how to talk just looked at the researchers and said, "Want nut."

Because their lab protocol requires that the birds always get an appropriate response to their verbal demands, this was actually the optimal strategy.
posted by nev at 7:10 AM on May 7, 2007 [3 favorites]

In the fall, I usually see a lot of Blackbirds near my office. They like to sit atop the light poles, atop the fence. Occasionally, I find them hopping between the pear trees.

I have noticed that they possess little fear of people -- or, at least, little fear of me. There is also a distinctly predatory look in their eyes. Some hint of calculation or internal dialogue, as though they actively weigh their chances against me.

If we consider ourselves to have dominion over this world, these creatures would seem to be either successors or diminished predecessors.

From these thoughts, this nightmare: A flock of these great, dark birds silently descend to the hood of your car. As their beaks meticulously test the resiliency of the windshield glass, their eyes calmly observe your reactions, committing them to memory for later study.
posted by Kikkoman at 7:31 AM on May 7, 2007

The crows are the reason all garbage (here in Sapporo) has to be covered with netting, with more or less success. In the park, they watch while you eat -and not at all like a pigeon does. I finally got fed up one day and ran up to one of the brutes and tossed my hands up and yelled "Gah!" But he just stood and stared me in the eye and telegraphed, "I know you can't reach me yet, from where you're standing."
posted by damo at 8:28 AM on May 7, 2007

..."It seems that from the point of view of the winged slyboots, large predators are little more than simpletons."

Yeah, I'd say that about sums it up.

Heh, that line caught my eye too. Slyboots is now going to be incorporated into my daily vocabulary, if all goes according to plan.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:21 AM on May 7, 2007

Here in Juneau, AK, all of the public garbage containers are bear-proof. Less because of the occasional bear wandering through town and more because of troupes of ravens having a hayday looking for some leftover jojos. One day I was looking out onto the rooftop of a nearby building when a baseball rolled into view. A raven was pushing it around. I wonder if he ever cracked that egg.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:28 AM on May 7, 2007

I wonder if he ever cracked that egg.

Who knows? Maybe he was just playing baseball.
posted by Jilder at 10:34 AM on May 7, 2007

When I lived on Capitol Hill in Seattle, one of my next door neighbors had one of those weird apple tree varieties where the apples never fall off. Many days during the fall that tree would fill with crows, who made the branches toss as if there was a high wind, and made so much noise they drowned out an entire schoolyard full of elementary students at recess who were his next door neighbors.

These crows were really bad actors. They used to dive bomb me with little apparent concern for their own safety, and you couldn't leave things like gloves or plastic bags of leaves or garbage outside or they'd rip them to pieces cawing strange gutteral caws the whole time, and they were really hard to shoo away.

I didn't really understand what was going on with these guys, that I used to call the real Hell's Angels, until an actual high wind came along one day and blew about a dozen apples down into my back yard. Every single apple had a series of pits about an inch and a half deep carefully pecked into the flesh of the apple around the stem. The smell of alcohol from those pits was overpowering.
posted by jamjam at 10:34 AM on May 7, 2007 [2 favorites]

There aren't many crows on the campus of New Mexico Tech... except for one month or so in the fall, when the pecan trees are ready. Hundreds of crows show up out of nowhere, strip the trees, and then vanish again. I used to wonder how they found out about it.

I've since moved away to northern New Mexico, and there are tons of ravens here all year round. They hang around the Sonic Drive-In waiting for people to drop fries. I've also seen one get into the back of a pickup truck, pull out a crumpled McDonald's bag, open the bag, unwrap the wadded-up wrapper inside, and eat the crust of bread that was in it. They certainly seem to know what fast food is about!
posted by vorfeed at 11:01 AM on May 7, 2007

A friend of mine went camping and came back with a great raven story. She was with her boyfriend and his mom, dad, brother and sister-in-law. They did a hike-in camping trip in the southwest, I can't remember the park but it was canyon-y. They were followed the entire 7 day trip by a pair of ravens. Every new camp they made there were the ravens. At the second site they made the mistake of setting up camp and then everybody went for a look around. The returned to find their campsite had been ransacked. Bags with zippers were unzipped and contents pulled out. Basically anthing not really securely fastened was messed with. As they walked up to the camp site one of the ravens was rolling around an apple trying to find a way to take him with him. They just stopped and watched him. She said after a few different tries it finally just speared the apple with his beak took a few hops and flew off like that. For the rest of the trip they had to always leave someone at camp or the ravens would be at it again.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 2:04 PM on May 7, 2007

Lately, I’ve been working for the crows

Oh, absolutely. We work for them.

My dad has kept a few crows in his time, wounded crows that needed rehab time before being released, and one that was missing a wing and couldn't be released. The crows had no doubt who was in charge, and would let us know as loudly as possible that they knew which side their bread was buttered on; any side they wanted, damnit. The pure contempt they showed for us lesser, inferior creatures was humbling. I never saw any real evidence of cleverness, but then again it was us feeding them, so who's to say?
posted by lekvar at 2:51 PM on May 7, 2007

The crows in my backyard will imitate squirrel sounds to drive the other little rascals insane.

Also saw a dogfight between a couple of crows and a couple of seagulls - the gulls had a lot more power (able to gain altitude faster) but the crows were much more agile. One crow was duking it out near the ground and the other crow 'pretends' to fly away. The other gull quickly gains altitude and begins a divebomb run on the remaining crow - the 'flew away' crow manages to get back and intercept the diving gull before impact and the diving full flew into his fellow gull buddy instead of the crow on the ground.
posted by porpoise at 3:37 PM on May 7, 2007

I'm just a bit too far south to see many ravens, but I take great pleasure in watching the crows in my neighborhood menace just about every other animal.

I remember how a couple of years ago, something must have seriously spooked one, (we figured it was another bird going after an egg) because a couple of seconds later, there were hundreds of crows in the air, all screaming and chasing something. It was amazing, because you don't normally see crows flock, but that's exactly what these ones were doing.

But I think that it is just something built into the corvid family. There is a great Jim Brandenburg photo of a raven pulling out the tail-feather of an eagle. They seem to enjoy picking fights with bigger birds.
posted by quin at 12:13 PM on May 8, 2007

there were hundreds of crows in the air, all screaming and chasing something. It was amazing, because you don't normally see crows flock, but that's exactly what these ones were doing.

That behavior you're describing is called mobbing. It's a fairly common defense mechanism for birds, and crows/ravens are particularly good at it. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I've seen ravens scare off bald eagles this way.
posted by frogan at 8:55 AM on May 9, 2007

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