With neither a brilliant plumage nor a melodic song to set it apart from other birds, the crow might seem to have been dealt a low blow.
Instead of whistling a happy tune, crows cackle and squawk in irritating patterns that are about as charming as fingernails on a blackboard.
But animal behaviorists have long believed that the crow has at least one thing in its favor. It is among the most intelligent birds in the world, with some species so advanced that they make and store their own tools to extract food from hard-to-reach sources, such as holes in trees.
So with an IQ roughly equivalent to that of the family pooch, the crow's image should be looking up. But now comes new research that gives the crow another black eye, so to speak.
It turns out that while there is a little gray matter in its head, there is a lot of larceny in its soul.
Stealing, Not Protecting
According to animal behaviorists Renee Robinette Ha and James Ha of the University of Washington, some crows just can't keep their claws out of their neighbor's lunch box.
That may not seem all that surprising to anyone who has watched a flock of crows feeding on a beach and fighting among themselves, but it flies in the face of conventional wisdom about what the crows are really up to. While they are feeding, some crows constantly dash around the area, keeping watch for predators that might want to eat crow.
It is a form of vigilance, according to crow literature, with some crows assigned the task of watching out for enemies.
But the researchers have come up with data that shows that's not what the crows are doing. Instead of watching out for predators, those crows that are flying around and looking so vigilant are really just looking for something that they can steal from another member of the flock.
"It's not to protect them from predators," says James Ha, a research associate professor of psychology. "What we are showing is the vigilance, contrary to many studies, is primarily for food stealing."
"Finding that chance to steal food is a very uniform strategy among these birds," adds Renee Ha.
Those who were "guarding" the flock, for example, often swept down and took food away from other crows instead of watching out for enemies. And during high tide, when the crows were forced closer to a nearby forest where predators abound, no crows were manning battle stations. They just sat around, the researchers conclude, because nobody else had any food to steal.
The first of several studies conducted by the researchers was published in a recent issue of the journal Animal Behavior, but they have since carried their work to a "new level," as James Ha put it.
Good Crows and Bad Crows
It all began a few years ago when a graduate student, Renee Robinette, arrived on the Seattle campus with a yen to study complex behavior among birds. Her faculty adviser, James Ha, suggested they head for the beach. To study birds, of course.
Anyway, over the course of 18 months, Robinette spent about 300 hours sitting on the beach, cloaked in cold-weather gear, watching crows.
Robinette and her adviser captured a bunch of crows by using tranquilizer bait. Blood samples were taken from each bird for DNA research, and the birds were banded with color-coded leg bands so each could be identified during the study.