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Eggs to Eggheads – Ravens, crows, jays, magpies and a number of other species all belong to the family Corvidae. This family of birds possesses a high level of intelligence. In fact, ravens and crows are considered to be among the smartest birds on the planet. They’re
even capable of building and using tools! Recent research indicates that crows and ravens are even able to pass on their skills and techniques to others of their own species. That’s something that hasn't been documented about chimpanzees. One thing’s for sure: The ravens and crows of Catalina are smart. If you see these birds looking like they’re “up to something,” they probably are. Take a minute whenever you spy one to watch what it’s doing. See if you can figure out what’s going on. Ravens as well as crows almost always do something worth watching. Here are a couple of stories illustrating that point.

That’s Teamwork -- When I was a bald eagle trapper in Arizona, a female golden eagle landed on my trap set. Since I didn’t have a permit to trap golden eagles, all I could do was sit and watch as she consumed the bait. Since I was in a blind, I had nothing better to do than watch this majestic bird feed. Suddenly, two ravens landed. One immediately positioned itself in front of the eagle, and the other behind it. After a few minutes of squawking and staging, they made their move. The raven behind the eagle lunged at the big raptor’s tail feathers with its beak -- again and again until the eagle finally spun around and lunged back. The second she was off of the bait, the raven in front jumped on the food and ate as fast as it could. When the eagle saw this, she jumped back on and kicked the front raven off. Then, to my surprise, the ravens traded positions. The one who had just fed, took its turn clamping at the eagle’s tail feathers until, sure enough, she got agitated enough to spin again -- as the raven in front jumped in to quickly feed. This cycle was repeated dozens of times until both ravens were well fed and flew off. It was clear from their behavior that this was a technique they had mastered and used as a team. When all of the birds left, I examined the scene and found a golden eagle tail feather, pulled out and literally in tatters. These guys weren’t playing around.

Raven Gangs  -- Breeding adult ravens pair up and generally operate in tandem. But younger ravens, which don’t become adults for three to four years after they fledge, must learn to get along without their parents. This might be impossible without the help of their friends. A young raven foraging on its own would not be able to protect its food in the presence of a mating pair of ravens, which would rob its meal. However, when a young raven is accompanied by seven or eight other juveniles, they can fend off a mating pair and keep the food. Juvenile ravens can alert their friends by giving an excited “yell,” which can attract at least one scout raven to the find. The scout would then find other juveniles and bring them to the site in order to share and protect their spoils. This is pretty sophisticated social behavior for birds.

Not Just Showing Off 
-- Adolescent ravens have been known to play games with each other, such as drop-and-catch and tug-of-war. These games help them test their physical limits. Ravens also have been known to play catch-me-if-you-can with dangerous animals, such as wolves and dogs. These dangerous games may be played to increase their social status and, most importantly, attract desirable mates. That’s important, because ravens rarely have more than one partner in their lifetimes. Basically, the more adept they are at showing off their skills, the better the odds are of pairing up with an impressed mate, and getting to pass their genes along. All of that play is serious business.

Crowbars and Other Tools -- Crows in New Caledonia use tools to forage for invertebrates in dead wood, according to the Behavioural Ecology Research Group at the University of Oxford in England. These crows on the Melanesian island in the southwest Pacific, “Use at least four different tool types, including those cut from the thorny edges of leaves of Pandanus trees,” wrote G.R. Hunt of the Oxford group. “The tools are produced in a series of manufacturing steps and have complex shapes – they are the most sophisticated animal tools yet discovered. The shape of Pandanus tools varies regionally, and it has been suggested that this may be the result of cultural transmission of tool designs, with crows learning from relatives and other members of social groups how to manufacture and use particular designs. In other words, it is conceivable that these crows possess a culture of tool technology – akin to that found in our own species.” Note that this particular crow isn’t from North America, but our crows use tools, too. It’s pretty easy to spot them using rocks to break shells for example.

Living with Crows and Ravens: Neighborhood Nuisances

Issue #5 / All Abouit Crows and Ravens


Knowing One From the Other
Bird-Brained? No Way!
Neighborhood Nuisances
Fact or Fiction: Rattleless Rattlesnakes?
Did You Know…Crab Spider Alters Hues

Photo by  Frank Hein

Two ravens perch near the Roy Rose Garden on Catalina.


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