We’ve previously discussed the impressive intelligence of crows here on the Grail, from research showing that crows can solve complex sequential puzzles, to video of a crow stealing a credit card to purchase a train ticket from a vending machine.
Now, in what may be the creepiest-looking science experiment ever, researchers have discovered that crows know what death is – and it appears that they fear it, gathering in groups around a dead crow and calling loudly.
Donning scary latex masks, the researchers brought out a dead, taxidermied crow, to find out why crows gather around their dead (the reason for the masks is because crows never forget a face, and the scientists involved weren’t keen on getting harassed by angry corvids).
For more on the research, check out this short film:
The evidence keeps stacking up for the remarkable intelligence of this much misunderstood and maligned bird.
Note: for those who might have questions about the experiments, the lead researcher posted a bunch of answers to the most frequently asked questions in the comments thread beneath the YouTube video:
I’m seeing a few questions come up repeatedly so let me take a minute to address them.
1) Yikes, why are the masks so creepy?! These masks were made in service to the original facial recognition study that took place a little over a decade ago at the UW. You can learn more about that study in the PBS ‘Murder of Crows’ special which is free to stream. When asking that original question of “do crows recognize threatening people” it was important that the masks were expressionless, since a happy or angry looking face might influence how they would respond (we now know it actually doesn’t). It’s very hard to find human-like expressionless masks though, so we had costume makers come in and take molds of volunteers’ faces. What you’re left with is something that basically looks like you cut someone’s face off and are wearing it Silence of the Lambs style, which is kinda the point, but admittedly also very creepy to people!
2) Why did you need to wear masks at all? During the actual study I wasn’t a mask wearer, I just recorded data. It was a volunteer that would don the mask and hold the crow, or return a week later wearing the familiar mask. But volunteers are fickle and I couldn’t be guaranteed that the person available to help during the “funeral” presentation could come back the following week. By having people wear the masks though, it didn’t matter who was helping me, I could keep the face the same. And based on the previous facial recognition study I knew that’s really all that mattered.
3) How did we know they weren’t just freaking out because the masks are creepy? I ran controls to verify this. Linda is one of ten different masks so it was easy to verify that wasn’t what was going on. If you want to learn all the details of this study you can read it for free on my blog. You can also find me on twitter @corvidresearch where I am always available to answer all your corvid questions.
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