Emergency Care for Baby Crows

It is that time of year again, and the baby crows keep coming! In most cases, crows should be left to fend for themselves, particularily if they are fledgelings. Before you attempt to rescue a baby bird, consider the following:

  • Is it badly injured or in danger?
  • Are there other crows nearby?
  • Is it a fledgeling or a nestling?


Fledgeling or Nestling?

Like many species, juvenile corvids will typically leave the nest before they are able to fly. They will spend several days on the ground building up their flight capabilities and learning essential survival skills from their families.

This is a completely normal and very important part of their life cycle. It is not uncommon to find young crows on the ground in suburban, urban and industrial areas.

Unless these birds are clearly injured, they should be left alone for their parents to care for. Crows that are in immediate danger, can be placed up off the ground on a low branch or structure, but should not be moved more than 100 feet from where they were found.

Nestlings, on the other hand, are quite apparently babies, with pink or greyish skin, overlarge heads and fine chickdown. Nestlings may fall from the nest by their own terrible misfortune, or be kicked out by a sibling. In some cases, a rival bird may also be the culprit.



Fledgling crows can be found learning to fly during the months of May, June and July. People are frequently concerned that the crow that they have seen on the ground is injured rather than simply a youngster learning to fly.

One easy way to tell if a crow is a youngster is to look at the color of the bird’s eyes. Young crows have blue/grey eyes. Another easy way to tell if a crow is a fledgling is to look to see if other crows are hanging out nearby.

If there are other crows nearby they are likely the parents. Size of the bird is NOT a good indicator of age since fledgling crows are frequently close to the size of their parents when they leave the nest.


Wouldn’t it be safer to raise the crow in captivity and let him go once he is able to fly?

No! Although the urban landscape may seem like a hazardous place for a crow to learn to fly, many crows do manage to survive. In fact urban crow populations are increasing.

Raising a crow in captivity and then releasing it to the wild reduces its chance for survival. Crows spend between one and two years with their parents, a much longer period than most other bird species.

This extended period is essential for young crows to lean complex life skills, a wide array of vocalizations and to integrate into a complex social structure. Captive raised crows miss out on all of these things and have very little chance for survival.

Sometimes protective behavior by adult crows can be confused for aggression against the youngster, but rest assured that a loud raucous group of adult crows is a sign that a youngster is in good hands.

If you have determined the bird is a Fledgeling, get as close as you can to check for injury, but take care not to touch it. Beware that  the protective nature of corvids  may inspire them to attack you, so make your assessment quickly and move on.


Safety First


It is best to avoid touching the bird if possible to avoid spreading disease (contrary to popular belief a crow will not reject its young just because you touch it). However, if the bird is in an unnatural place, such as  a parking lot or the middle of the street, it needs your help. Pick it up as gently as possible by slowly cupping your hands together beneath its feet. If the bird is quite large, slide one hand under its feet and place the other gently on its back right at the base of the neck.  Move it to a safe spot under a bush or at the base of a tree. Take care not to move it too far away from where you found it, so the parents don’t freak out when they return.  If the bird is within reach of a dog or cat, keep the animal inside or away from the bird until it has fluttered off with its family.


Caring for a nestling at home is very difficult, and babies have very little chance of surviving. Nestlings are too young to be on the ground. If you find a nestling, try to locate the nest and put it back. If you can’t reach the nest, attach some kind of “nest” to the side of a tree. You can use a small box lined with any soft and dry material. The parents may come to this nest to continue caring for the nestling.


Emergency Care

If you have found an injured fledgeling, or orphaned nestling and it is too late or impossible to go through with the above advice, use the following guide to take action.

Injured fledglings: broken leg, broken wing, ruptured air sac (will appear as a “bubble” of skin), or wounds from cat/dog attacks:

Call your local Audubon or Wildlife Rehab center. Your other option is to find a vet who specializes in bird care. See our links at the bottom of the post.

Do Not: Wrap the wing or leg yourself, or move the bird unless absolutely necessary.

Fledglings with a twisted leg:

A severely twisted and useless leg is a common crow birth defect. The parents will reject babies with this defect and push them out of the nest. Babies with this defect do not typically gape for food, and may have some type of internal defects. An adult bird can survive with one leg, but a baby with a crippled leg will not be able to walk or fly, and will spend its life sitting as if paralyzed. Sadly,a baby with this defect should be humanely euthanized.

Call your local Audubon or Wildlife Rehab center. Your other option is to find a vet who specializes in bird care.

Do Not: Euthanize the bird yourself. 


Sick, dehydrated, or fly-covered fledglings:

If the fledgling is unable to sit (toppling over on its side) or is attracting flies, it likely just needs some TLC.

Call your local Audubon or Wildlife Rehab center. Your other option is to find a vet who specializes in bird care.

Place the bird into a box with clean, dry bedding and sit it under a 40W lamp (take care that the bulb is not too close to the bird’s head)

If the baby is gaping for food: Mix a spoonful of sugar and a pinch of salt in a litre of lukewarm water. Use the wadded up end of a clean cloth or paper towel to soak up the liquid and gently let it drip onto the birds tongue.  Do not squeeze or pour the liquid in or you risk drowning the bird.

Once the bird seems to be feeling better, you can offer a shallow dish of water and try feeding it some soft food:


  • Cat or dog food soaked in water until soft and mushy
  • Ground turkey or chicken softened with a little warm water
  • All natural baby food (meat varieties are best)
  • Finely mashed tuna (low sodium please!)


Depending on the news from the vet or rehabilitator,  it can probably be returned to the same general location where it was found. The parents will likely resume care once the baby has been revived.

Do not: Attempt to hand-raise the bird as a pet. Not only is this illegal if you are unlicensed, but it is not right for the bird.


Why You Shouldn’t Keep It

According to Cornell Ornithologist Kevin McGowan, “One common problem with hand raised crows is that if they are taken early enough they easily become imprinted on humans. This might seem like a good thing while you are raising it, but it is definitely a BAD thing. Crow babies make wonderful pets and are very appealing. Being very social they want to interact with you constantly (like a puppy, way more than a kitten). They are very curious and get into lots of funny situations. They are very personable, have very distinct personalities, and might even learn to say a few words (often only to one specific person). The downside of this behavior is that it makes them unafraid of people and very vulnerable in the wild.

Over the course of my studies on crows I have spoken to a large number of people who have raised them as pets. All speak lovingly of the experience, but consistently, the stories end in one of two ways: 1) The crows start leaving for a day or so at a time (usually in the fall), and then are never seen again, or 2) some neighbor or someone nearby kills them when they are too friendly/aggressive. Usually this involves the crow trying to land on the head of an unsuspecting person or their children, which results in the crow being hit and killed with a stick or broom. I was astounded at the number of people whose stories ended this way. What I have almost never heard is the one I would expect the most, knowing normal crow behavior: that the crows left and kept coming back intermittently for a year or two. My wife had pet raccoons that did that, and I had a friend who raised a bobcat that did that, but I have spoken to only one or two people who have ever had a hand raised crow do that. I suspect that they don’t get the chance because they got killed soon after they went out on their own.”

Crows, Ravens, Jackdaws, Rooks, and other corvids need professional care and large aviaries to maintain their health and happiness. If you are interested in becoming a wildlife rehabilitator in your area and you have the yard/room for a substantial aviary, contact your local rehab center for volunteer position and inquire about their licensing program. Online programs are available through several univeristies world-wide or by clicking here (US-Intl) or here (Canada)


Originally posted on 6/27/2010

To Cull or Not to Cull, Caw Crow Lovers

According to popular media, so-called scientists in the U.K. plan to execute a cull of thousands of corvids in a bid to save songbird populations.  Many of us in the community, which include scientists, rehabilitators and amateurs alike, are wondering when these scientists forgot that crows, magpies and jackdaws are songbirds too. The ‘dramatic decline in farm and woodland birds in the last 50 years’ has been tenuously linked with crows, although no hard evidence has been furnished nor has there been comment on exactly which farm and woodland birds are at stake. As is usual in bias case, an objective viewpoint regarding other factors such as climate change, human encroachment, and feral species has not been offered either. To make matters worse, political interests are involved, granting wind farm owners a strong voice in adding peregrines and other protected birds to the list.

One article mentions the concern focusing on sparrow declines while another suggests Skylark issues. The sparrow decline is a sad story indeed, but one that has been ongoing for nearly a century, without any change in corvid behavior or population. According to a recent special run by the BBC, the primary threat under study now is not the cunning crow, but is the human element. Feeding behaviors causing dependency, the sparrow’s poor adaptability and the human introduction of the obnoxious wild asian parakeet which is rising in population as much as 30% per year. As reported by BBC news, “The population boom has been put down to a series of mild winters, a lack of natural predators, food being available from humans and that there are now enough parrots for a wider range of breeding partners.”

An RSPB spokesman said there was no evidence crows and magpies are behind the decline in numbers of songbirds. ‘The fall is driven by changes in the countryside,’ he said, ‘principally, a lack of nesting areas, a lack of food for chicks and a lack of food in winter. The robin population has increased by 52 per cent since 1970, long-tailed tits have increased by 89 per cent and the great tit species by 90 per cent.’

From the New York Times:

The £100,000 trial cull, due to start in March, has exposed a deep rift between two rival bird conservation groups, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Songbird Survival.

The RSPB rejects claims that avian predators are responsible for the decline in species such as the tree sparrow, corn bunting and yellowhammer, numbers of which have more than halved since 1970. It insists that the main cause of songbird decline is intensive farming, which has robbed songbirds of their habitat and food sources. It also argues that a widespread cull of crows and magpies could be illegal.

Songbird Survival questions whether farming practices are the main cause of the decline, pointing out that it has continued despite the billions of pounds paid to farmers in the past decade to protect bird habitats.

Between 2003 and 2008, there was a fall in farmland bird numbers of 7 per cent, according to figures published last week by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Populations of the main predators of songbirds have doubled in the past 30 years. Sparrowhawks, which kill an estimated 50 million songbirds a year, have increased by 152 per cent to 40,100 breeding pairs. Magpies, which raid nests, steal eggs and kill chicks, have increased by 98 per cent.

Nick Forde, a trustee of Songbird Survival, accused the RSPB of pandering to its members’ squeamishness. He said: “The well-established conservation charities rely very heavily on legacies. How many old ladies would want to leave their money to an organisation that goes round killing birds? There are a lot of vested interests who resist the idea of managing wildlife. But if we don’t we are going to lose our biodiversity.”

An RSPB spokesman said: “There are dark forces at work here. There is a lot of rhetoric going on about all our songbirds being eaten by nasty predators. We think these declines are driven by changing farming practices. Birds have been trying to outwit each other for millions of years. It’s an arms race between birds of prey and songbirds and there’s a natural balance.”

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 permitted landowners to control crows, magpies and some other corvids for specific reasons, such as protecting game birds, the spokesman said. But he added that the law did not permit a widespread cull. Killing a sparrowhawk is punishable by a pounds 5,000 fine and up to six months in prison.

The trial cull of crows and magpies will be carried out by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, which is considering sites in Hampshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Herefordshire and the Scottish Borders.

Use the following graphics on social sites or your own  website where you want to spread the word to help educate humans about the effect of climate and habitat change on birds. Where myth and villianization are lifted, our intelligent friends can be left to evolve as the planet sees fit.  You can link back to this post using the full URL or this tinyurl: http://tinyurl.com/63nkfw5



Learn more:

Wildlife Villiage Stop the Cull Petition


Facebook Causes: Stop the Cull

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Crows and the Great October Roost

By T.L.Kemp

It is  the time when the crows begin to form small roosting groups in the evening. Observers may note flights of crows all heading in one direction in late afternoon/evening or gathering in a group in the treetops. These gatherings are generally much smaller that the large winter communal roosts and we presume they serve as a sort of training ground for the sort of social interactions that occur later on when hundreds or thousands of crows gather in one location. One would also presume that the smaller roosts generally are comprised largely of crows closely related to each other by blood or mating and occupying territories adjourning or very close to each other.

According to Michael Westerfield,

“Roosting areas tend to be located where there are large, mature trees with open spaces in between. In cities and towns, cemeteries, college campuses, malls with adjacent trees, old rail yards, and older neighborhoods and industrial areas, and the like tend to be favored. If there is a river or other body of water nearby, its a definite plus. The crows generally settle on the branches of trees which have already lost their leaves, or on the uppermost branches of those that haven’t, so it is easy to spot their silhouettes against the still bright sky. At this time of year, the temporary roosts may be more loosely organized and spread out over a wider area that those in colder weather.

If there are crows in your neighborhood throughout the year, it’s likely that there will be one of these temporary fall roosts nearby. The amazing thing about these roosts, and even some of the gigantic winter roosts, is that one can be fairly nearby and most folks will be totally oblivious to its presence. I suppose it has to do with the timing, when people are still at work, commuting home, or just settling in for a long autumn evening. Probably the most common reason folks notice crow roosts relates to crow droppings on their cars or sidewalks in the morning. If your car is clean, and you want to find your local roost, just take a walk in the late afternoon – with your ears free of noise making devices. Choose an area with large, old trees and open spaces. Watch and listen for crows passing by up above and move in the general direction in which they are moving and, if you are lucky, you might just arrive at the place the crows will choose to spend the night. You’ll know it when you get there!”

Crows,Ravens & The Science of Sleep

Crows roost in large, sometimes huge murders (a flock is called a murder) at night. A hundred years ago one could find these roosts just outside villages and towns, and it was thought they did this for safety from dogs, cats and owls that like to nest in human built structures. Now, however, these roosts are most often located inside the city limits and it’s thought for the same reasons as they roosted outside the city before.

By Richard George

Crows Choose to Sleep Inside City Limits

Inside cities are 5 – 15 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding urban areas, and even where its legal to shoot crows, it’s illegal to fire weapons within city limits. Crows don’t see well in the dark, so sleeping in the city gives the advantage of being able to see a predator coming, and also the ability to see where to flee safely. In 1972 the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was written to cover crows, meaning crows are now much safer than ever before.

If one ever has the chance to see a large roost in the city before dark, it’s an interesting thing to watch. They begin to collect at the roost before dark and they all seem to chatter to each other and flit from tree to tree until it becomes the darkest. Then, they quiet down and sleep. Large roosts that are located just outside of city lights quiet down quickly, and those crows seem to get more sleep.

Some of the largest, oldest trees around are protected in city parks and privately owned land. These are large, old trees and are very attractive to roost-searching crows.

By Martin Cooper

Migratory Birds Have Reasons to Sleep in the City

Crows that are territorial also fly to the roost to sleep with family and friends at night, returning to their territory at dawn to begin foraging for their survival. Scientists think they do this for several reasons.

One theory is that, like humans at a hotel, many are meeting their needs of sleep and shelter while at the same place, at the same time, but they aren’t interacting with each other much. This doesn’t sound correct, especially if you’ve ever witnessed crows at such a roost. As mentioned before, it’s loud and very socially active until complete darkness.

There’s the old adage that there’s safety in numbers, and this may well be another reason they gather to roost together. A crow with many supporting helpers around may not be as attractive to a hunting hawk or other predator. And, there’s also the theory that they gather to spread information about food supplies and dangers to avoid.

Catching a Nap

Corvidae Daytime Behavior

During the day, some crows go off on their own to their territories and others may stay in a small murder and forage together. This is when you see a bunch of them swarm a yard or field and walk around while they hunt and talk together. They are loud and move through an area quickly and scientists believe this behavior is a social event, since crows do not depend on each other for day to day survival. Every now and then, they will catch a nap.

[box]Written by Sandy Mccollum[/box]

Crows & Ravens vs The World

Mobbing behavior by crows and others in the avian family is very common. The crows are reacting to the potential threat another lifeform or (until they quickly figure it out) an object poses as a predator to the adult crows and their offspring. The mobbing often serves to harass the threat into leaving the area. Occasionally, though, a mobbed hawk or owl will turn the tables and attack and kill the crow.

The following video is a chilling example of how a murder of crows will defend its turf, cornering an otherwise formidable opponent using intimidation and force, but the Owl is not about to lose…


In this clip, the crows are shown displaying a more common dive-and-swoop behavior on a Great Horned Owl that has entered their territory.


Mobbing is not the only way crows and ravens deal with threats, and there is some speculation that harassment behavior may be more than protecting a flock. There have been documented encounters between Crows, Ravens, Magpies etc  and a variety of natural predators, (the most common being hawks, owls, and cats) but also between the corvids and creatures which would normally not pose any threat to them whatsoever (such as squirrels, rats, smaller birds, or insects). Generally these can be attributed to hunting and scavenging, but not all.


During some encounters, the crows act as if they are simply doing it for sport, to alleviate boredom, or as a ritual of discovery. Bullying and teasing has been observed in many highly intelligent animals, including ourselves, apes, dolphins, rats, cats, and wolves, lacking the systematic signs of an instinct mechanism (such as those observed in ants). Does this indicate that the sense of self which factors highly into higher intelligence also brings with it the curse of jealousy, intolerance, and greed?

In a tribute to Aesop’s fable of the Jackdaw and the Peacock, this crow attempts to steal a tail feather (or catch a ride)


All is not lost, however. Our beloved birds are not Hitchcock villains or devious devils looking to lie, cheat and steal at any opportunity. Like humans, corvids adapt to their environments and fortunes, or lack thereof, and as a result have a widely diverse set of skills and behaviors.  They also seem to be particularily fond of, or at least respectful of, the cat.




The Giant Cowbird

Not a Corvid!

Last month we brought you a delightful and silly un-corvid, the Willy Wagtail. This month is a much more sinister subject – the Giant Cowbird (Molothrus oryzivorus).

By Peter VanZoest

The Cowbird one of the few entirely black birds found in Central and South America. It is a quiet bird, particularly for an icterid, but the male has an unpleasant screeched whistle, shweeaa-tpic-tpic. The call is a sharp chek-chik.  Like corvids, they are also very adept mimics.

What sets the birds apart from Crows and Ravens in their behavior is that they are brood parasites, laying eggs in the nests of oropendolas and caciques in the same way Cukoos lay eggs in Crow nests. The eggs are of two types, either whitish and unspotted, or pale blue or green with dark spots and blotches. The host’s eggs and chicks are not destroyed, but there is considerable doubt about the theory that the young Giant Cowbirds benefit the host’s chick by removing and eating parasitic flies. In some cases it has been observed that the cowbird chick will push the others out.

Also like Crows and Jackdaws, the Giant Cowbird is large at 36-40 cm (14 in) long, weighs 180 g (6.3 oz) and is iridescent black, with a long tail, long bill, small head, and a neck ruff which is expanded in display. The female is smaller, averaging 28 cm (11 in) long and weighing 135 g (4.8 oz). She is less iridescent than the male, and the absence of the neck ruff makes her look less small-headed. Juvenile males are similar to the adult male, but browner, and with a pale bill. You can easily tell them apart from crows by noting the beady yellow eye, as well as the tiny skull.

By Tom Davis

The Jungle Crow

The Jungle Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) is a crow (or Karasu烏 in Japanese) specific to Southeast Asia, and most prevalent in Japan. They are slightly larger than the Carrion Crow, and are affectionately called Corvus Growus Biggust by some locals. The Corvus japonensis, or large billed crow, is just one of 11 subspecies of Corvus Macrorhynchos. Some of these subspecies are distinctive vocally, morphologically and genetically, leading to speculations that more than one species is involved and they may not all be ‘Jungle Crows’ at all!

By Daniel Ruyle

The Jungle Crow’s feeding and nesting habits vary little from that of other Crows, with the exception of the Japanese variety which are notorious for scavenging. Their nesting habits are also much the same as their cousins, with the addition that they will sometimes end up with a Koel (a kind of Cuckoo) egg or two in their clutch.

Crows in Japan are regarded with mixed reaction. There is a large population of Corvid lovers – naturalists and spiritualists, but also a large number of haters. Tokyo’s governor Shintaro Ishihara created a “special commando” whose only purpose is “crow extermination”. This commando is starting to destroy nests and kill crows all around Tokyo in an effort to control their numbers. More recently a much kinder approach has been implemented to give 50.000 blue nets toTokyo’s citizens to cover their garbage bags when they put them outside their homes in the morning – the real source of the Crow population boom.  In contrast, Jungle Crows in India are more revered than hated, as the crow is a sacred animal in the Hindu religion.


Jungle Crows in Japan are known best for their particular talent of cracking nuts, a behavior mimicked in other crows there. Researchers believe they probably noticed cars driving over nuts fallen from a walnut tree overhanging a road. The crows already knew about dropping clams high above the beaches to break them open, but found this did not work for walnuts because of the soft green outer shell. As shown in this BCC video, when the lights change, the birds hop in front of the cars and place walnuts, which they picked from the adjoining trees, on the road. After the lights turn green again, the birds fly away and vehicles drive over the nuts, cracking them open. Finally, when it’s time to cross again, the crows join the pedestrians and pick up their meal.If the cars miss the nuts, the birds sometimes hop back and put them somewhere else on the road. Or they sit on electricity wires and drop them in front of vehicles.


By Daniel Ruyle

The Jungle Crow is best distinguished by the blue-violet sheen to its feathers, its large fat beak (making it almost appear like a very large jackdaw). In Japan, this species is larger than a Carrion Crow.  Due to the size difference, Jungle Crows are sometimes referred to as Asian Ravens, although they do not really possess the characteristics that would qualify it as such, and further west (such as in India) Jungle Crows are much smaller and sleeker. Their call is reminiscent of the Common Crow with a slightly deeper pitch, and they have been documented as mimicking woodpecker knocking.

Crows Chasing Crane, By Daniel Ruyle

By Daniel Ruyle

To view more incredible photos of Jungle Crows and other wildlife in Japan and India from Daniel Ruyle, click here

Stay tuned this month as we cover mythology and photography from India and Japan featuring this wonderful creature!

Empathy is For the Birds Too

Many birds are highly social and very intelligent, two traits that might be prerequisites for empathy. Although very little is known about empathy in birds, (read our previous article here) there is some tantalizing evidence that it exists. New research has documented what many bird watchers have known for decades; ravens apparently console their friends after an aggressive conflict with a flockmate.  To flesh out this topic, a team of researchers at the University of Vienna, Orlaith Fraser, a postdoc, and her co-author, Thomas Bugnyar, a teaching fellow, decided to investigate further. They chose to study the Common Raven.

Of the findings, Dr Fraser writers,”The findings of this study represent an important step towards understanding how ravens manage their social relationships and balance the costs of group-living. Furthermore, they suggest that ravens may be responsive to the emotional needs of others.”

To read the entire exciting study, head over to my favorite grrlscientist blog

10 Really Weird Crow Facts

In our last top ten fact list about Crows we highlighted corvids from a scientific angle – they are intelligent, persistent, prolific, and hardy. In this list, we want to explore some of the stranger things about our favorite critter. Without further ado:

Crows living in suburban areas require only 10% of the nesting territory that crows living in in the wilderness do,  and are much more tolerant of range overlap. They also will build fake nests to fool predators.

Dubbed ‘Anting’ by John Marzluff, crows will crush an ant and rub it all over themselves like perfume! The Formic Acid in the ants helps ward off parasites.

Image of a Black Drongo 'Anting'

Pet crows give their owners names. This is identified by a unique sound they make around specific people that they would not otherwise make.

Female Crows mate for life, but males will cheat, which explains the next one:

Male crows have no penis.  Their sperm is transferred from their cloaca to the female cloaca and copulation only lasts 15 seconds. Its a wonder the females are so loyal!


Crows can count to six!

Crows sunbathe for Vitamin D.

Odin the Crow Sunbathing

Healthy crows help crippled crows but they have a dark side. Crows occasionally murder each other for reasons that mystify scientists.

Crows have been observed chasing sparrows into buildings in order to stun them. The result is sparrow for lunch. Don’t worry, they  pick on birds their own size – mobbing crows can seriously injure hawks.  Scientists suspect an eagle was even killed by mobbing crows.

Crows have been reported to eat over 1000 food items, including insects, worms, berries, birds eggs and nestlings, small mammals, bats, fish, snakes, frogs, salamanders, animal dung, grain, nuts, carrion, fried chicken, hamburgers, Chinese food, french fries, and human vomit. They can be weirdly picky though – an experiment showed crows prefer French fries in a McDonald’s bag over those in a brown paper bag. To top it off, a nestling can eat 100 grasshoppers in 3 hours.

Crow With French Fry

Crow with a French Fry By Richard Brayton

Who You Callin a Bird Brain?

The March issue of Discover magazine featured a delightful spread on corvid intelligence, specifically highlighting the life work of Nicky Clayton.

Back in the 1990s, her colleagues at the University of California at Davis would stay at their computers at lunchtime, but she would wander outside and watch as western scrub-jays stole bits of students’ meals and secretively cached the food. During these informal field studies, Clayton, an experimental psychologist, noticed that the birds returned frequently to their stashes and changed their hiding places.

“I thought, ‘This is odd,’” she says. “I assumed birds would cache for a long time—days or months. But this was for minutes.” She theorized that the birds were moving their caches to avoid pilfering. When food was plentiful, they grabbed as much as possible and hid it, then hid it again when they could do so without being observed by potential thieves. That behavior implied that the scrub-jays might be thinking about other birds’ potential actions, a type of flexible thinking that was supposedly beyond the capabilities of a scrub-jay’s little brain.

Clayton realized that if she could capture this caching behavior in the laboratory, she might be able to decode the social cognition of birds—the way they think about one another. She might learn whether they are capable of deception, if they respond differently to individual competitors, how well they evaluate their degree of privacy, and other aspects of their mental processes.

“I had a lucky break with caching,” Clayton says. “I saw this as a niche, an area that other people weren’t busy with that might be quite interesting. Little did I know where it would lead.”

Scientists had already established the amazing memories of corvids, the family of birds that includes jays, crows, ravens, and nutcrackers. The Clark’s nutcracker can hide thousands of seeds at a time and has passed tests of recall up to 285 days later. Clayton sought to find out how deep those skills run. Many animals have impressive mental capabilities for certain narrow tasks, but such aptitudes seem to reflect hardwired or conditioned adaptations to specific challenges. That is distinctly different from a human’s ability to create and manipulate a flexible mental model of the world.

Within a few years of her lunchtime insight, Clayton was conducting the first experimental demonstrations of a non­human animal engaged in mental time travel. Her experiments demonstrated that scrub-jays plan for the future, recall incidents from the past, and mentally model the thinking of their peers. Since then her work has expanded even further. She has found other mental capacities in birds that rival or surpass those of any other nonhuman species and come uncannily close to abilities we thought were ours alone.

Looking beyond corvids, some animal behaviorists have examined how songbirds use grammar. And some have ventured farther down the evolutionary tree. One study attributed higher mental functions to fish, presenting evidence that African cichlids can reason inferentially. The accelerating stream of discoveries is challenging our understanding of what animal minds can do.

Clayton’s work also has its fierce critics—not surprising, given the century’s worth of debunked claims regarding animal intelligence. Shettleworth suggests that Clayton and Emery need to repeat the thieving experiment in a different way, with a large number of fresh birds divided into groups according to whether or not they have experience as thieves. “I think the work is provocative but not proven,” Shettleworth says, “because those birds have a history.”

Nicky Clayton’s fascination with birds does not end when she leaves her current day Cambridge University office. Over the years, the avian world has infiltrated her personal life as well, informing her off-hours interests in dance and social connection. And conversely, she has developed ideas related to her research by looking at bird behavior through the prism of her own experience.

Read the whole article here

About Nicky Clayton:

With a slight frame and sharp mind, Clayton likes being compared to a bird. As busy as the corvids she studies, she dances six days a week, even during university terms. And to push her metaphor further, you might say that she pays close attention to her plumage: Her dresses come from Milan, and she perches on stiletto heels day and night, whether relaxing at home, practicing salsa, or striding across the medieval flagstones of Cambridge at a breakneck speed.

Last year Clayton had a rare opportunity to bring her two sides together when Mark Baldwin, the artistic director of the London-based Rambert Dance Company, asked her to help create a contemporary dance commemorating the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. She agreed and then spent weeks sorting out how to express evolution in dance. “I was thinking I could just give them a straight science talk, but that’s a bit boring,” she says. “Given that I love to dance, it made sense for me to merge the two.”

In the resulting work, titled “The Comedy of Change,” Baldwin included a solo that evoked the bird of paradise video. Reviewers found the piece beautiful but, as with the behavior of the birds Clayton studies, a bit mysterious. One writer who attended a performance in Northampton that was primarily for schoolchildren appreciated it more—thanks no doubt to a talk Clayton gave in advance.

Clayton still glows about this experience. As a young girl she loved birds, dance, and clothes. Now she has all three, adding dance company science adviser to her list of titles and honors. All of that curiosity and optimism spills right back into her academic work, as she attempts to decode the minds of her scrub-jays. “I just like watching them behave,” she says, “and using that to generate ideas.”