Monday, July 27, 2009

The Corvids are my people, so to speak


I heard a most excellent report on crow research this morning on Morning Edition. Robert Krulwich interviewed two crow researchers who talked about their discoveries that 1) crows can differentiate between individual people 2) when you piss them off they hold a grudge and 3) they tell all their friends that you are a jerk.

Here's what happened. Two researchers, one at U. of Washington and one at Cornell, both tagged nestling crows majorly irritating both the nestling, its parents, and all the crows around. Subsequently, both researchers were scolded and mobbed whenever they were on campus or around town. The scolding occurred even when they were several miles away from the original banding sites. Their conclusions (supported by further research) indicated that the crows recognized them as bad guys and spread the word to other crows whenever they saw them around. This message of "he's a bad guy" was then picked up by the other crows who heard it and so the knowledge was passed throughout the local crow community.

Pretty freaking cool.

One annoying thing about the story was that they made a big deal of how crows can recognize us individually but we can't tell individual crows apart. Even these two researchers who have spent their entire adult life studying crows can't tell them apart. They made all sorts of wild speculations as to why this might be. My answer? Crows are a hell of a lot less phenotypically plastic than people. The question you should be asking is why do people vary so much in appearance while crows conform to a very narrow set of physical appearances (they are ALL black, vary very little in size, etc.). Individual crows likely tell each other apart by more subtle cues of vocalization and behavior that we can't pick up on. That's my uninformed opinion anyway.

Holding a grudge and passing on what a jerk you are to others, two more ways in which crows are my people.

1 comment:

Tiffany A said...

Yep, couldn't help but think of you when I heard that story. I too thought they made too much of a deal out of how we can't tell crows apart. Duh. It was funny how they figured out that it wasn't something like plastic that the crows disliked (changed the mask from the caveman the jerk to Dick Cheney, who's like, the nice guy??). I like your retelling of the research.