Funeral for a Feathered Friend

Researchers are discovering why crows gather when one of them dies. Are they mourning or just learning? /

There’s an old “Far Side” comic showing a crow standing on the road beside a poor, flattened creature. The crow holds a spatula upright, the way a person would while waiting to flip a pancake.

It’s barely exaggerated. Crows and ravens can make and use tools to get food, even when the tools require multiple steps. The New Caledonian crow is especially famous for its skills. They track down just the right size branch, break it at just the right point, remove its leaves and bark, and work the end until it makes a hook. Then they use their new hook tool to grab insects inside rotting wood and to move leaves around as they forage.

That Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher isn’t off the mark, either. Researchers documented crows placing stones in a deep glass of water that had a worm floating in it. The crows dropped in solid, heavy stones to raise the water level and eat the worm. The birds skipped lighter and hollow objects that wouldn’t displace as much water. This, the researchers said, puts crow intelligence (at least in this field) on par with 5- to 7-year-old human children. (Similar experiments with tools rank chimpanzee intelligence about the same as a 2-and-a-half-year-old kid’s.)

Now a series of new experiments is asking whether crows are smart enough to understand death.

Investigating funerals

I’ve seen abundant crows all my life. But only since moving to the Pacific Northwest have I noticed crows ganging up on hawks and eagles, chasing them away. That antipathy between crows and hawks helped to make for an interesting recent experiment for researchers at the University of Washington.

First, the researcher laid out food for the crows. After the crows got used ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 41 / February 4, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from February 04, 2016

    Issue 41: Crow funerals, the strangeness of light, wonder at the Renwick, and asking God rightly. /

  2. How Light Changed the Rules of Opposites

    North couldn’t be south. An odd number couldn’t be even. And a particle couldn’t be a wave. Then we saw the light. /

  3. Wonder in Washington

    The newly renovated Renwick Gallery reopens with massive, immersive installations. /

  4. You’re Praying Wrong

    Ask, and it will be given you, Jesus promised. Crave, and you’ll kill for it, James warned. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 41: Links to amazing stuff.

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