Crows, along with magpies, jays, and ravens, are members of the family Corvidae, a group known for two things: exhibiting complex behaviors, and having massive brains. A New Caledonian crow named Betty once made a TED Talk audience go bananas by bending a wire to make a hook. And researchers believe the Hawaiian crow is likely to have the same talent.
“One of the reasons I got so excited by them was because hooked-tool use is something that only New Caledonian crows and ourselves have invented,” said Alex Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland. “The great apes haven’t invented using hooks, and [humans] only invented using hooks probably around 100,000 years ago. It’s possible that crows beat us to that bit of technology.” Taylor says the birds have a high encephalization quotient, which means their brains are really big for their bodies. The crows he works with aren’t spooky; they’re observant: “Basically it feels like you’re constantly being observed and assessed,” Taylor says. “You’re dealing with a very smart and watchful animal.”
Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab in New York, told me that the crow’s spooky reputation is pretty unwarranted. “It’s because they’re black and they’re scavengers,” McGowan said. Their bad rap started in northern Europe, where there are no vultures, so ravens and crows were always the first to show up to snack on animal carcasses. When Europeans came to North America, they brought their crow prejudice with them. “That whole combination of being near death, not having a very pretty song, that was all a big negative stigma for these guys to overcome.” He also wishes The Birds had never been made.
“Crows are beautiful,” McGowan says. “A big adult in the sunshine is beautiful, the way the light shines off their wings ... They’re just a really nice-looking bird.”
But sometimes crows are victims of mistaken identity. Grackles look like crows, except they are smaller and shinier, more of an iridescent purple. They bully other birds at feeders, and they can damage crops. They also make a horrible sound, like a screen door closing, or a rusty gate swinging open. Grackles are the birds that you hear and you think ugh. Crows, though. Crows are matte black, and they make a sharp, clear caw caw. Ravens, like the one who barges into the chamber in the Edgar Allan Poe poem, are also not crows. They are much larger, roughly the size of a red-tailed hawk.
While humans might sometimes conflate crows with their avian relatives, research shows that crows rarely forget a face. John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, once conducted an experiment with two masks—a “dangerous” mask and a “neutral” mask. His assistants wore the dangerous mask to capture and band several crows, and for months afterward, he and his students wore both disguises around campus: The ones in the dangerous masks were repeatedly scolded by crows, while the ones in neutral masks were left alone. The crows also appeared to warn their friends of the danger at hand.