The subject of everyone’s favorite collective noun fact has long held an association with death and doom, but when and why did crows get their murderous title? As carnivorous corvids, crows will scavenge on just about anything, which could explain their association with battlefields and public hangings. This is likely the source of the belief that crows like to peck out the eyes of corpses, which may anecdotally have been witnessed but is also a behavior seen in many scavenging animals, and there are worse ways to access gooey innards than this, let me tell you.
Crows will gather around other crows that have died, a behavior that fueled the theory that crows hold court to decide an individual bird’s capital fate. This is just one of a host of eery origin stories about how these birds earnt their collective noun. The idea was likely spurred by the fact that crows hold "funerals" for the dead (which can take a dark turn). This funerary practice occurs as crows make alarm calls or a series of loud scolds (a kind of vocalization) to make other crows aware of the death. These alarm calls trigger mobbing, which is when crows gather around the carcass and begin to scold, and this can go on for 15 to 20 minutes during which time their big brains are whirring away trying to work out what happened so they don't meet the same fate.
Crows’ fear of danger and death was demonstrated in this extremely creepy study that saw participants stand near feeding stations wielding taxidermy birds to see if the crows were affected by the sight of their dead. Sure enough, when specific mask wearers were associated with holding dead corvids the crows got most upset and would dive bomb that person even if later they weren’t holding a dead bird. (Take home message: don’t annoy a crow because they can really hold a grudge).
Much of the spooky folklore associated with crows is also attributed to ravens, an unsurprising mix up when you see how similar the two species look. It seems the association with death and doom for these gothic birds might be somewhat displaced, and they have other traits that seem to stand out far more than their historic penchant for dining at death scenes. Crows are disturbingly clever, as proven by a host of research into their unique and varied skill set.
It’s thought that crows’ bizarre and above-average-even-for-corvids’ intelligence is linked to their parenting, as crows receive a year of tutelage from their parents to learn everything from sophisticated tool use to which humans to be wary of. However, even more amazing than what they can learn from their parents is what crows are capable of teaching themselves.
A study into self-taught behaviors in non-primates showed crows worked out how to use a vending machine by inserting rough bits of small paper. They were rewarded with food when the paper went in, and then left with large pieces of paper that couldn’t fit in the slot. Without missing a beat, the crows began tearing the paper into slot-sized pieces and when given different colors of paper, each with a different outcome, learned which meant food and stopped using the one that left them hungry. The ability of an animal to teach itself novel tool use and commit it to memory was once believed to be a talent isolated in humans and their ancestors. Enter stage right: clever crows.
Crows have also been found to have a form of consciousness thought only to be held by primates. Most perplexing of all is that the brainiac birds have evolved to have primary and sensory consciousness despite lacking a cerebral cortex, which is the area of the brain believed to be linked to such self-awareness. Further research into crow craniums identified that there was a great deal of activity observed in the nidopallium caudolaterale, an area of the brain that is similar to primates’ prefrontal cortex, when they were completing a task. It’s the region of the brain where decisions are made and houses higher thinking.
An iconic scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds sees a murder of crows taking on a fleeing crowd of screaming children, but unless the school had recently hosted a "bring your taxidermy to school" day there's really nothing about crows that would cause them to commit such an assault. So, are crows really deserving of their sinister reputation? Perhaps the photo below is really all the evidence we need.
If you really want to see an evil corvid (discounting gorilla crow) you should check out Australia’s swooping season.