If, during a casual stroll around Sarjapura, Bengaluru, you encounter a mysterious masked figure in all-black muttering into a device “Two flying around… Circling…. Species unknown… Caw-caw-caw”, don’t be alarmed. You have most likely just encountered biology student Aum Sarang Prabhune diligently gathering data for his ongoing study on crow behaviour.
To the average person, crows are not something to get excited about. They are, as Aum correctly puts it, “everywhere, yet nowhere”. Even bird-loving citizens rarely give these relatively common, raucous creatures a second glance. So, the fact that an honours student of biology is spending his final year studying crows is something that may raise a fair number of eyebrows. Surely, crows aren’t that interesting?
They are. Corvids — the family that includes crows — have relatively large brains, and some rather exceptional capabilities, and a quick online search for news headlines from the past decade featuring the word ‘crow’ corroborates this.
Crows and magpies using anti-bird spikes to build nests, researchers find
- The Guardian, July 2023
Scientists demonstrate that crows are capable of recursion — a key feature in grammar
- Scientific American, November 2022
Crows Are So Smart They Seem to Understand The Concept of Tool Value
- Science Alert, December 2021
New Caledonian crows smart enough to plan three steps ahead to solve tricky problem
- The Conversation, February 2019
Is Your Toddler as Smart as a Crow? No
- TIME, March 2014
Bottom line: Crows are intelligent.
And this is only part of the reason for ecologist Krishnapriya Tamma’s long-time soft corner for the birds. “Growing up in a south Indian family, crows had a certain cultural importance,” she says. “I noticed how food was kept outside for crows during death ceremonies. I also remember my mother playfully remarking ‘one for sorrow, two for joy’ — referring to the belief that seeing one crow alone was a bad omen but seeing two meant that she could expect some joyful news.”
A growing interest
Like many others, Krishnapriya (referred to as Priya, hereafter) also came across the popular fable about a crow and a pitcher. In this ancient story, a thirsty crow comes across a pitcher with some water in it. However, its beak is not long enough to reach the water, and the pitcher is too heavy to flip over.
The crow overcomes this by dropping pebbles into the container until the water level rises enough. Interestingly, about a thousand years after the fable was written, scientists recorded that rooks (corvids, like crows) do, in fact, react in the same ingenious way when faced with a similar situation as the crow in the fable!
“With that [the fable] and a lot more literature about the more scientific aspects of corvids, we now know that they are one of the most intelligent birds… in fact, they are thought to be equivalent to many of the primates in terms of cognitive abilities!” said Priya.
Priya’s research expertise lies in forest ecology. While it is true that she was fascinated by the birds, crow behaviour was not something she ever imagined doing research on. Not until one fateful morning, that is. While walking to the University, she noticed something alongside the street. “Somebody had left some rice in plastic bowls, and all these crows had arrived to feed off it. I noticed a behaviour I had never seen before — one crow picked up a bit of food and placed it in the bill of another. It was feeding the other bird!”
Priya found this incredibly intriguing because the second bird was perfectly capable of feeding itself. “Why did the first crow bother to share its food? Was one of them a juvenile? Were they a mated pair? Or maybe,” she smiled “maybe they were just friends or roost mates!” The episode got Priya wondering under what circumstances crows share food. “From that moment, I have been waiting to find the student who would be interested enough to work on crows.”
‘Caws’ and effect
Enter Aum. As an art and literature aficionado, he was familiar with the imagery of crows scavenging on rotting corpses after a battle. “I always found them very sinister,” he says, adding that he never imagined crows to be a subject of science. All that changed after his conversations with Priya and reading of the literature on corvid cognition. Today, Aum is a certified member of the Corvid fan club.
What really intrigued him was the lack of definitive literature on the behaviour of Indian corvid species. “There have been many behavioural studies carried out on various species, but relatively less has been done on the house crow and large-billed crow found in India. Those papers that do exist turn out to be exploratory. Towards the end, they do not tell us something definitive like ‘x=5’ but more like ‘x lies between 1 and 50′,” he says.
One of the least understood aspects of crow behaviour is their communication, and that is what Aum is focusing on. “Right now, I am conducting a behavioural ecology study on the large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos), more colloquially known as the jungle crow,” he explains.
Simply put, Aum is categorising the calls of the large-billed crow using parameters such as amplitude, frequency, duration and intervals between consecutive calls. This information will be accompanied by qualitative data on the behaviour and organised into a table or a catalogue called an ethogram. “I will then check if any patterns emerge… whether there are correlations between different calls and different behaviours,” says Aum. “At least, that’s the ambitious output I am hoping for!”
|Walk/run||Bipedal movement along the ground either at a slow or hurried pace. Running birds may have outstretched wings.|
|Rest/sleep||Motionless with head “tucked under wing” standing or sitting, with eye(s) open or closed.|
|Preen/bathe||Cleaning and oiling feathers with bill. Or using water to wash feathers by scooping water over body with wings and/or bill.|
|Feed/forage||Consumption of food from feed trough or natural filtering (pumping water through bill) in pools.|
|Stand||Motionless. Not alert (head is held low in front of body), not asleep or testing. General inactivity.|
|Alert||eck held in erect S‑shape with head on 90 degree angle, scanning surroundings.|
A part of an ethogram from a study on flamingo behaviour. [Credit: Rose, Paul & Riley, Lisa. (2021)]
This explains why you may find him roaming the Sarjapura hinterlands muttering strange phrases into audio recorders. The reason he is dressed in all black, even in the scorching summer sun, is because that was what he happened to be wearing on his first-ever walk.
There is evidence that corvids can recognise humans, so Aum is trying his best to make sure the neighbourhood crows get familiar with his presence. “When conducting field studies, efforts must be made to not ‘stand out’ to the native creatures. Refraining from draping yourself in vibrant clothes is one of them. Also, my philosophy is to establish one more layer of constancy in the protocol, by dressing in similar attires throughout my fieldwork,” he elaborates.
Friends, family and lovers
Corvids are social creatures. They are typically monogamous, with the mated pair remaining together for life. Corvid couples have been observed to support each other in fights, juveniles sometimes join ‘teenage gangs’, and the young are often raised not just by their parents but also by other members of the roost. They roost in large groups during the non-breeding season. It is common to see them roost in the hundreds and in some cases, in the tens of thousands! Aum brought up the example of a roost in Norfolk where over 60,000 corvids (specifically, the rook) roost together in winter.
Being this social gives these birds a host of benefits such as access to resources that would otherwise be unavailable to individuals. At the same time, it takes a lot to be a social animal. “In a lot of cases,” pointed out Priya, “social animals have hierarchies within the society. You have to keep track of who’s dominant and negotiate your position. There are a lot of things that a social animal has to keep in mind if it has to navigate the complexity of social life.”
All of this manifests in ways that have caused humans to label these birds as cognitively superior. Interestingly, as much as they marvel at corvids, Priya and Aum are both extremely cautious about the tendency to grade animals based on their perceived intelligence. “How do we say that certain species are smarter than others? A lot of the time, it is by us asking them to do very human-centric tasks like pressing a button, or solving a puzzle. But why should an animal who has never faced these in its natural world have these abilities?” Priya argued.
Behavioural ecologists have to be really careful not to introduce bias into their studies by anthropomorphising their subjects. This is harder than it sounds. Even Charles Darwin, the so-called ‘father of evolution’, was guilty of describing dogs as “disappointed”, cobras as “cunning”, and crows as “sympathetic”, based on what he observed. While such descriptions are incredibly convenient — and sometimes useful— they risk being inaccurate and can lead to misinterpretations.
On his first few crow walks, Priya accompanied Aum, careful to catch him whenever he slipped up. After all, his best chance at creating an effective ethogram is to collect data with “excruciating detail” and to be as unbiased as possible.
“If you really want someone at an undergraduate level to experience doing science, it may not make sense to dive right into climate change or complex issues around biodiversity loss and conservation. Curiosity-driven projects like these are a good way to get students excited. And unless there is excitement, how will they find the motivation to even take on the heavy stuff?”
The unpopular question of why
Why go through all this effort to study crows? Not an ecologist’s favourite question, but one that they are forced to reckon with in an academic scenario with limited resources and an obsession with translational research.
Natalie Uomini, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, has suggested in an article in Science that too much credit has been given to humans “as the pinnacle of evolution and intelligence”, and that studying other animals like corvids can give us “insights into the evolutionary conditions that helped our big brains and our intelligence to evolve.”
Aum has a more direct response. Do it because you can, he says with a shrug. “You cannot really identify a very utilitarian reason to research crows. The average person’s life will not change because correlations have been made between large-billed crow calls and their behaviour.”
Priya echoed her student’s sentiments but added her perspective as a teacher of science. “If you really want someone at an undergraduate level to experience doing science, it may not make sense to dive right into climate change or complex issues around biodiversity loss and conservation. Curiosity-driven projects like these are a good way to get students excited. And unless there is excitement, how will they find the motivation to even take on the heavy stuff?”
“Aum is right in saying that studying something as simple as crows’ calls is not going to change the world. But look at Aum and me! It certainly has changed us, the way we think about crows, relate to crows or their environment… it has brought us joy, right?” continues Priya.
“It just makes you think differently about your own environment, about what other species are doing. It generates empathy, and empathy for nature is what we are lacking. Maybe someday someone else will look through our work and feel ‘Whoa! Look at this everyday thing that I take for granted. It’s actually so cool.’ That itself is enough,” she says.
- Rooks use stones to raise the water level to reach a floating worm https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982209014559
- Like humans, these big-brained birds may owe their smarts to long childhoods https://www.science.org/content/article/humans-these-big-brained-birds-may-owe-their-smarts-long-childhoods
- The social life of corvids https://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(07)01494 – 7.pdf
- What are animals? Why Anthropomorphism is still not a scientific approach to behavior https://courses.washington.edu/anmind/Wynne-anthropomorphism-CCBR2007.pdf
About the Author
Nandita Jayaraj is a Science writer and Communications Consultant at Azim Premji University.
Know more about the BSc Biology programme at Azim Premji University.