Christian Long

Joshua Klein: The Intelligence of Crows

In TED Talks on May 24, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Extra credit reflection by DARCY S.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Joshua Klein:  The Intelligence of Crows

If it were not for the obstacle that is “challenge”, we would be without many things in our world. We owe it to the Marx Brothers to accept the flight disability, with their bold attitude and determination, to produce the flying machine that has progressed to the majestic machines that enable us to fly anywhere today. This is the attitude that “hacker” Joshua Klein has adopted, and as a result has discovered some perplexing facts about an animal we loathe and misperceive.

Often regarded as the scum of the winged world, crows have developed a poor reputation over their history. During the plague, nobody wanted a crow sitting atop their house, for that means somebody is going to die within that family, as it was believed. Still today we view crows as vile and disgusting bottom-dwellers, and at first glance we hastily shoo them off. Naturally we don’t see the potential lying within the vermin and we immediately label crows, and many birds for that matter, as very stupid and useless. However, this is not the case with crows at all, as hard as it may be to believe. In all actuality, they have brilliant minds and bafflingly long memories.

The bedazzlement starts with Betty, a crow. When left alone in a room will a metal stick and a tube with a little piece of meat in the bottom, Betty uses her beak to stab at the piece of meat in an attempt to retrieve it. After she realizes its not working very well, she uses her beak and claws to shape the stick into a hook. This is the shocking part though: she was never taught to make a hook. Not from her parents or other crows, Betty figured this tool out all on her own.

They’ve also been known to sneak up and steel the fish off of ice fisherman’s reels while they are away, finagling those fish in a cunning manner that we have to give them props for. We might credit these little Einsteins for their genius because of their proportional brain, roughly reflecting that of the chimpanzees’ and even our own human brain.

Their memory might even be more functional and effectual than our own. When some students at the University of Washington gathered some crows and hassled them a little bit for some studies, the crows did not find this very agreeable and in their spite set off to return the favour. From that point forward, the crows cawed and harassed those students whenever they saw each other. Unfortunately for the students, this vengeance lasted longer than a month, exceeding a season, a year, and even after they graduated from college. Better still, when the students returned to campus after graduating, the crows still remembered their faces and continued to harass them. This demonstrates the animal’s outstanding memory. Many of us would not be able to recognize the same person through all their changes over the years, yet these animals have the knack to do so.

Also, we have all seen evidence of the tremendous adaptation crows and other animals have undergone in order to keep up with humans. Crows even utilize traffic to their advantage. After collecting a nut they are unable to crack open with their own beak, they place said nut in the middle of a cross walk while cars are stopped at a light, then walk off. Then after the cars have given the nut a good crack, the crow retrieves the nut again once the traffic has stopped at the light again.

So we just need to give these brilliant creatures more respect than currently credited. If we can utilize their intellect in beneficial ways, we can establish a symbiotic relationship with them in which both human and witty vermin benefit from each other’s company. Klein suggests that if he could train them to use a special crow vending machine, then we can probably train them to pick up trash after a concert or search for victims of an earthquake. We don’t have to watch them eat our trash, but rather acknowledge the potential in these animals and train them to help us instead of burdening us.


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