Ornithologists have observed that crows, members of the incredibly intelligent corvid bird family, will kiss and make up after fighting with fellow flockmates. The birds are also more inclined to forgive and seek forgiveness from their close pals than from passing chums.
The research, led by the Max Planck Institute in Germany, followed the social interactions within an artificially created group unit, or murder, composed of 12 hand-raised juvenile carrion crows. During special food monopolization experiments, the team introduced only one or two pieces of meat to the caged crows, causing them to squabble with one another in order to get a bite. This process was repeated over a 6-month period so that the humans could gather data on each bird’s relationships with the other crows.
The findings, published in the journal Ethology, showed that the crows engaged in more affiliative behavior – grooming and physical contact – after experiencing tense feeding sessions than they did during non-experimental parts of the day. This suggests that crows, just like humans, seek to reassure and confirm relationships with one another after getting into tiffs.
The act of a victim receiving affiliation from individuals not involved in the dispute is called "consolation", whereas "reconciliation" occurs when the aggressor affiliates with their victim and vice versa. Both are types of post-conflict behavior that help maintain social harmony in groups of animals.
Reports of consolation among corvids are abundant, but reconciliation was previously limited to ravens.
“We thus provide the first evidence that a corvid species, crows, flexibly engage in both third-party affiliation and reconciliation,” the paper states.
Interestingly, the authors found that conflicts were more frequent when the flock was presented with two pieces of meat rather than one. After physical altercations in the two-piece feedings, crows who received aggression cuddled with, groomed, and were groomed by individuals not involved in the fight. The instigators, perhaps justly, did not receive affiliative behavior.
The researchers hypothesize that spacing out food resources between two locations allowed the birds to avoid directly competing with their closest allies. Instead, the crows could relegate unpleasant competition to individuals that they were not as closely bonded with. Translation? The crows played nice when packed together, trying to get some quality meat alongside their besties. But they let their tempers flare when jostling beak-to-beak next to mere acquaintances.
“In contrast, after non-contact aggression in the one-piece condition, aggressors affiliated and former victims received affiliation [from one another],” the authors wrote.
In addition to revealing further emotional depth in these already brilliant birds, the research offers practical advice on how humans can ruffle each other’s (metaphorical) feathers less, like apologizing for the things you do and say when hangry.