Soar with the crows
Crow parents and their young live in a nest, as many other birds do. But the young that live there may not be just newly hatched or fledglings (young birds who have grown flight feathers). They may be quite grown up.Skip to next paragraph
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"American crows retain their young at home for years and years," says Kevin McGowan. He has studied the American crow since 1989. "I've had 6- or 7-year-old crows still at home with the parents."
What do these "grown-up kids" do at their parents' nests? They make sure that their mother has plenty of food when she's warming the eggs that will hatch their new siblings. Later, the older birds ensure that the baby crows have plenty to eat, too.
"Some feed [the babies] more than the parents [do]," says Dr. McGowan. "They take turns watching out for predators or for trouble. They guard each other, and do all the sorts of things that a parent would do." As the babies mature, often they follow their beloved older siblings around.
If you spotted a piece of candy behind the sofa, would you leave it there? Or would you roll up a magazine and use it to try to pull the candy toward you?
Some crows also create tools to grab the things they want, usually food.
New Caledonian crows make tools out of the twigs and the long, prickly edges of the leaves of the tropical pandanus tree, says New Zealander Gavin Hunt. He studies these crows, which live on islands between Australia and Fiji.
Dr. Hunt has discovered that New Caledonian crows have three different designs for tools. They also make two kinds of stick tools - hooked and not hooked.
One crow's tools are very much like another's. That's why Hunt believes young crows learn toolmaking techniques from other crows. He theorizes that the birds must communicate among themselves to share tool design information.
"We [usually] only see this level of tool skill in humans," says Hunt. "New Caledonian crows teach us that in many ways other animals are not so different from us, and we should respect them for their differences and similarities."
Nicholas S. Thompson, psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has studied crow communication for nearly 40 years. He has written that each crow's caws identify that individual bird. That allows other crows to keep track of how many crows are nearby - and which crows they are.
In his book, "Listen to the Crows," Laurence Pringle explains how crows identify themselves. They can make long or short sounds, a certain number of sounds at one time, and pause in between sounds. "The pattern [of caws] is like a name, but a crow doesn't have to keep the same 'name' forever," he writes. "Or maybe they each have a few favorite patterns and switch when crows of similar patterns are nearby."
He adds that a slow, unhurried caw means "Everything's fine." But a few quick caws spell "Danger!"
Crows do more than just caw, though. Dr. Thompson writes about their "incredibly complex vocalizations, ranging from yips and coos to growls, rattles, and sniggers." Some of these sounds appear not to be reactions to immediate events. He theorizes that crows may "talk" about things that happened in other locations or at other times.