Grudge-Holding Crows Pass on Their Anger to Family and Friends

By Joseph Castro | June 30, 2011 7:57 am

spacing is important

What’s the News: A few years ago scientists learned that American crows can recognize and remember human faces, particularly faces they associate with bad experiences. Now, new research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that the birds can share that knowledge of dangerous humans with other crows.

How the Heck:

  • Five years ago, zoologist John Marzluff and his research team at the University of Washington trapped, banded, and released 7–15 American crows at five different sites near Seattle. Before trapping the birds, the researchers donned different rubber masks specific to each site (a caveman face, for example). While the birds were caged, nearby crows circled the site and sounded alarm calls.
  • The team then tested the crows’ reactions to the masks. Over the first two weeks, about 26 percent of the crows that the researchers encountered scolded—with a harsh, repeated kaw, accompanied by wing and tail flicking—the masked enemies. Groups of crows would sometimes mob the researchers as well, squawking and dive bombing them. When the researchers wore different, neutral masks, the crows normally did not react, suggesting that the tagged birds, as well as the birds that watched the tagging, remembered the “dangerous humans.”
  • Over time, more crows joined in on scolding the masked researchers. In a little more than a year, over 30 percent of encountered crows reacted, and by three years, about 66 percent did. That percentage has continued to increase. Interestingly, the crows did not need repeated reminders of their enemies. “They hadn’t seen me for a year with the mask on and when I walked out of the office they immediately scolded me,” Marzluff told ABC.
  • To test whether the birds were simply following the lead of crows that had been trapped or had seen the trapping, or if they had actually learned to recognize the dangerous faces themselves, the team looked at how fledgling crows reacted to the masked researchers. Turns out that if young crows, born after the trapping incidents, saw their parents scolding the researchers, they joined in. And even in cases where the adult birds had left the nests, the fledgling crows would still scold the dangerous humans.

What’s the Context:

The Future Holds: The researchers are now investigating what happens neurologically when crows see a dangerous face, according to LiveScience.

(via LiveScience)

Image: Flickr/ingridtaylar

  • Michelle

    I don’t think their eyesight is as good as claimed. I have been misidentified as a miscreant by a group of crows. All because of a hat.

  • Iain

    What this proves is that crows like many species have a rudimentary language.
    They were calling dirtbag and passed it on to a younger generation.
    Big surprise, the young learned from the old.
    The real test is to find out what characteristics the crows used to identify the faces.

  • Michelle

    In my case it was probably a combination of factors…a wide-brimmed hat, a light-colored jacket and physical build. I saw these same crows cawing at another woman on a day that I wore a different kind of hat…she was dressed the way I usually do when I go to the beach.

    It’s been several weeks though since the last time I was there…I wonder if they have found someone else to yell at.

  • Chris

    These findings make me wonder if crows also go a step further and enact vendetta on humans.
    We have a very bountiful cherry tree in our country cottage’s back yard that up until two years ago gave us loads of cherries. Of course raccoons and many types of birds, including crows helped themselves. Three summers ago I clapped and yelled to chase the crows away. They would fly away cawwing “angrily” (my interpretion). The last two seasons we have returned on vacation to find cherry branches with green cherries attached littering the ground. Our neighbors reported seeing crowds of crows in the tree ripping off the branches. They were even eating the green, unripe cherries. Humanly it feels like punishing behavior. Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing? Anyone observed similar crow behavior?

  • cancer cure

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    thank you and have a nice day

  • Kevin Johnson

    I wonder who paid for this and how much it cost them.

  • Bird Lover

    The crows at my golf course know me, and wait for my handout of peanuts. They used to pick my pocket(book) that was in the basket of the cart, but have learned to just wait for the handout (all they ever got from my purse was cash and credit cards).

  • Stan

    Konrad Lorenz wrote about this in King Solomon’s Ring (1952).

  • Jan Standefer

    I grew up raising baby crows and over the years after being gone from the small town where I did this I was always recognized by the crows in that part of town and would be dive bombed! My mom used to laugh and tease me saying, “see, they remember who stole their babies!” This happened after I’d been gone for 3 years to college when I returned home to visit my parents. They are like the bouncers of the bird world! they also will scold animals they don’t like, cats, certain dogs, ravens, eagles, etc. As pets, they make wonderful watch dogs! Too bad no one asked me about this or I could of saved them all that time and money on the research at U of Wa.!! I live here in Wa now and think it’s hillarious w/all this latest news on crows! I grew up in Alaska and they are everywhere and one definitely has many opportunities to observe them!

  • teresa

    Yes but if your part of there family. And you scold them first, they ask for your forgiveness and reashurance of your love and then run off to get into more trouble. talk softly to them bow your head down , lblink your eyes a lot. I then COO and do bill holding with them which is a sign of affection and reasurance . Blinking and showing the whites of the lids is a sign of relaxation and non agression. These birds have a strong hiarchy. If you allow them to be aggressive to you and have fear or back down them look out. Allways mutual respect is kept. They are very forgiving if your one of there family. If they see another raven scared or upset they are right there to comfort them and make sure there ok. If they are in fear for no real threat then the alpha raven will nip and get there attention and then preen there feathers only around the. Head and face area. It works. By the way, ravens and crows think there feathers are all that and do not like them touched even by family. Only the face and neck are touched by the rest. Beaks being touched are there way of communication as well. Ravens will have enouph respect to warn you before they bite. They give a non chalant bill click. They won’t warn you twice. I respect that. Crows wellll, they tend to bite first, but then again its only my stupidity of not recognizing the crows warning signs first. I live with them and we are all family. The wild ones that I feed understand I’m with them from seeing myn with me. So to make a longstory short,,,,,,,don’t disrespect them or touch there babys because they will only do what each of you would do and that’s protect there children and family members. Mutual respect is the key as well as don’t show fear. They don’t attack without a very good reason. Beautiful animals beautiful old souls is what they are. We can all learn so much if you yopen yourselves and your minds and hearts to their world. It’s actually quite less barbaric than humans when you look at what we do to each other in the world . They have a beatiful order to themselves and to each other as well as loving caring devotion.

  • teresa

    To Chris,
    They are scolding you. They scold each other as well. Put an offering of dog food dry preferably with your photo under the food. when they take your gift , they will see yor face in the photo and will most likely forgive you. Add some ripe cherries to the plate also. They can recognize people in a photo to. You see after you scold them you have to show love and reasurance afterwards. Tell them trees off limits but you still love them and give them something better instead. They also understand trading for something better. I get tree, you get dog food and a coupe ripe cherries for association reasons. You mabey should put the photo just above the plate actually and don’t pick one where your showing your teeth, but one with a gentle
    smile and relaxed eyes. Have fun! I have African ravens and crows. They are legal. Take care all.

  • Vincent

    Magpies are so closely related to crows that it shouldn’t be considered as a totally different species, I’m sure they can crossbreed and the research has not been done yet, it would be better to say Corvidae recognize human faces, as current research shows the corvidae family can recognize faces.

  • gwbnyc

    I can attest to this; for years, I was sure crows recognized me, by their calls and behavior- I know they can certainly discern a man with or without a rifle or shotgun- display a firearm and they disappear.

    I’m referring to crows reacting to *me*, and not just “another human”.

    I sometimes wonder how far the influence, in actual distance, goes. I suspect, from experience, farther and faster than imagined.

    I’ve dealt with them as quarry for years, and can assert crows know a lot more than they let on:)

    from above:
    “They also understand trading for something better”

    -True. When I was a boy a neighbor had a crow for a while that would fly up to you and try to take, say, a shiny gum wrapper from you. Denied the wrapper, he’d fly off and bring an item back in his beak to trade, like a pine needle. We would make the swap with him and he’d fly off with his new piece of tinfoil.

  • may

    it is the third time i am beaten by acrow now i am afraid to go to the park tell me why and what can i do to prevent it

  • teresa

    To May,

    They are teachers as well. If you do not know how to deal with a bully, lol, they will teach you or they will beat you if you don’t learn how.
    They will take your belongings, your personal space, if you allow it.
    If…you…allow it.
    Get mad and stand up for yourself and take your space back. Replace the fear with strenght, stearn, strong behavior.
    But…you have to learn to feel that strengh and firmness with no fear inside. They know when its acting. Belive me they know.
    When my raven tries me for dominance, I tell ..let’s go, its on, and I will win. I believe that. She then gets meek and sweet again.
    That is the ravens way. The crows way.
    Another thing you need to do is get a bag of puppy chow. They wool see you as a benifit to them if you throw out a cup of food to them every time you at the park. Let them see you dump it and even make up a certain whistle or call that they will learn. Put the food in the same place each time and in a few days or week they wool want to see you there.
    You see all corvids, will appreciate anyone that is a …benefit to them and there health and survival.
    Pretty soon you will be there buddy .
    It took months for the wild crows to trust me. That’s normal. They will be great friends to you.
    They need that food for there new offspring.
    Plus others will wonder what your trick is when you walk through the park with no problem and they arestill getting dive bombed, LOL.
    I promise you it will work .

  • Bent Lorentzen

    My undergraduate years as a biology / environmental science major was under the tutelage of a world class ornithologist. The Scotsman employed me summers in his wilderness bird research center, caring for injured birds, orphans, banding and the early 1970’s DDT research via a then state of the art but now antiquated type of Internet connecting several major universities. All my life I’ve cared for and released wild animals who got hurt mostly due to human activity. But have not been involved with this for a couple of decades. Then several weeks ago, while walking a wooded area in western Copenhagen, I came across a patch of gray feathers by a picnicking area that I thought had been a dead dove which a parks department mower had mashed. About to keep walking, I suddenly noticed that its head moved. Coming closer, I realized this was a Hooded crow nestling, bordering on fledgling. But it was utterly weak, emaciated, unable to rise on its right leg or really move her right wing. Still, I decided not to interfere, as all adults in a clan (murder) of crows participate in the feeding, raising and teaching of the young. So I sat away a good distance, seeing no activity in the huge ash tree from which this bird had fallen and become injured (very little foliage to help catch its long fall). In the two hours I waited, no crow came by, so I approached again, and decided to take her home.

    Being a Buddhist type most of my life, and having worked and studied life sciences to the post graduate level, in the past few weeks I have become more of a crow, and this little crow has become more human. But this is a wild crow, who was first imprinted on its family… and every few days, we take a journey to the area of that tree, and I leave her alone for a bit to interact with the crows that occasionally will circle overhead, sit in the tree and interact, but they have never come close to the fledgling yet. But she or he always somehow stumbles out of the branch I’ve perched her on… and makes a monumental 100 meter walk to where I am sitting still. The adult crows observe this, as I observe them.

    This morning, at 5 AM, almost the summer solstice, an amazing thing happened. I took the young crow, who now can fly a couple of feet, outside on the front lawn, a good couple of miles from where I’d found her. And suddenly there is a couple of large crows overhead, tightly circling us. I’d first set the little one on the ground to play; then to perch in a small tree. We were then to make one of our journeys into the wooded park of her birth. But those two crows circling above had called more than a dozen other crows, and it sent chills up my spine to be so directly interacting with a community of crows seeking to protect a child.

    I decided then to hold the fledgling up high, perched on my fingers of her own will, so they could all see that I was not holding this one captive, and to reinforce for the fledgling that he or she has this clan as her allies when and if she will come to fly. Her right side sustained an injury which a veterinarian had said would likely mean death (she wanted to put it to sleep)… but I’ve proven her wrong. Anyways, re. this early morning interaction with a dozen crows cawing rather aggressively as they circled above, I could see that the little crow was nervous, so I did this preening behavior, which for me means to nibble lightly with lips on her neck and throat feathers and breathe a thin stream of hot air. This instantly calmed the young crow down, and she sneaked her head under my chin and her bill under by shirt, very very gently nibbling withe her bill at my skin And she cooed a caw that is quite indescribable. This was observed by the dozen crows circling & criss-crossing above, and the whole drama gently eased, and those that remained settled on treetops and rooftops, cawing an entirely different tune

    It is an unbelievable investment of time, love and compassion, and knowledge… good scientific knowledge balanced by an uncanny sense of natural intuition… to truly care for an injured baby crow. Such a crow needs constant and intense social interaction, all sorts of problem-solving stimulation, and true crow-type physical affection (on the bill, and softly on the feathers of head, neck throat and belly)… and talk… naturally… never mind the twice hourly or more feedings… in order for all those neural networks to functionally connect during a very fast set of developmental stages. You have to be a real stay-at-home parent. The fledgling can now fully perch with both legs, though there is still minor paralysis in the right leg, but both wings seem now to be fully involved with her flying experiments.

    I have the deepest respect for what Teresa above expresses. She really has connected with the crow culture.

    And for anyone doubting the “great ape” depth of memory, intelligence and social networking that crows have enculturated for themselves despite having a brain 1/100th the size of a human, take a look at this paper from Oxford:


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