Ask a Zookeeper: Literary Crows?


I'm so excited to answer my very first "Ask a Zookeeper" question!  (I'm going to try to run this series every other Wednesday until I get the hang of it, and then I may increase to every week.)

This question comes from Jaye Robin Browne of Hanging on to Wonder. She writes MG and YA books, is represented by Steven Chudney at The Chudney Agency and also volunteers for her local Humane Society. She writes:

Q: "Could a crow be taught to read?"
A: Short answer: "Absolutely!" Long answer: "Define 'read'..."

Northwestern Crow, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
I love this question, because I didn't realize how intelligent members of the Corvid family--which also includes ravens, jays and magpies--were until a few years ago. I was working at a marine park in Florida at the time, and our Bird Department's pride and joy was a young African pied crow named Russell. (Get it? Russell Crow? *Pauses for obligatory chuckles.*) 

Russell was a star pupil, and our trainers successfully trained him an assortment of ridiculously complicated behaviors, including one where he buzzed the crowd in our theatre to the soundtrack of Top Gun. He retrieved donations and deposited them into an oversized piggy bank, and he "put himself to bed" at the end of every show, even shutting the door behind him.

African Pied Crow, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Later, at my zoo in Alaska, I met a magpie named George who possessed the apparently not-so-unique Corvid ability to mimic human speech.  She loved to blow kisses to her adoring fans, and she also said, "How are you doing?" and "Hi, George!" (Yeah, so we blew it with the gender thing. By the time we figured out she was a girl, she was already calling herself George.)

Black-Billed Magpie, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
My most amazing experience with Corvids, however, was the pair of ravens I also took care of in Alaska. Sam and Poe were both crippled with wing injuries, but that didn't stop them from maintaining a booming social life. They always vocalized and interacted with the wild ravens outside their enclosure, and I often caught them picking through their dinner, setting aside the good bits and passing the rest of their food out to their friends between the bars. This happened especially frequently during cold winter months when food was scarce.

I was floored by this, and I couldn't initially wrap my head around why on Earth Sam and Poe would engage in such an altruistic and selfless behavior. And then it occurred to me.  Sam and Poe had developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the wild ravens.  They provided the food, and the wild ravens provided the enrichment. It was a match made in Heaven.

Common Ravens, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
But I digress. This realization inspired me to do some research, and I was stunned by the wealth of knowledge available on Corvid intelligence. Not only can Corvids manipulate tools, mimic human speech, display social reasoning and demonstrate extraordinary feats of spatial memory, but they have also been proven to "recognize and ascribe numerical meaning to symbols," which suggests they may be able to “read” numbers and simple icons. 

Here's an excerpt from a recent article by Sunanda Creagh of The Conversation Literary Group:

In the latest edition of the journal Animal Behaviour, Japanese researchers describe an experiment in which eight jungle crows were presented with two containers, one with “2” written on the lid and one with “5”. The “5” container had food inside, while the “2” did not. The crows soon learned to pick the “5” container at a 70% success rate.

Other experiments tested whether the crows could differentiate between containers marked with non-numerical symbols such as shapes. The birds scored a 70 to 90% success rate picking the food-filled container for 19 out of 20 non-numerical symbol tests.

...Dr Stephen Debus, a bird expert and honorary research associate in zoology at the University of New England, said the results were interesting but not surprising because crows were renowned for their superior intelligence.

It is unclear why the birds evolved such smarts, he said “but I gather that it is probably related to their complex social organisation and also, being omnivorous in complex environments, they need to be able to find food in novel situations and solve problems in obtaining that food.”

He said he expected the study of crows to reveal more of their skills in future.

So yes, Jaye Robin, I would DEFINITELY say a crow could be taught to "read" on some level, and they can certainly discriminate and retain the differences between symbols. Pretty wild, huh??

Thanks for tuning in for my first edition of my "Ask a Zookeeper" series, and please let me know if you have any questions for future posts. I have a short list of great ones already, and I can't wait to hear more!

(Wanna learn more about Corvid intelligence? Check out this informative--and very, very funny--article from Cracked.com, called "Six Terrifying Ways Crows Are Way Smarter Than You Think.")