Murder Most Foul: Why Crows Are Underrated
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Murder Most Foul: Why Crows Are Underrated

Black bodies swarm the sky, blocking the sun from view.

Murder Most Foul: Why Crows Are Underrated

Black bodies swarm the sky, blocking the sun from view. Shrieks of birds fill the air, drowning out all other noise. A murder of crows is passing through en masse. People curse as they fly overhead; not many people feel kindly toward corvids. Some people believe crows are pests or omens of death, others don’t have an opinion at all. Largely, however, these dark-feathered avians are not well beloved. Regardless of whether or not crows truly are the big, bad wolves of the sky, one fact remains certain: crows are astonishingly intelligent animals. Moreover, they’ve been given a far worse reputation than they deserve.

A major issue people have with crows is their reputation for being disease carriers. As Russell Link, an urban wildlife biologist, states on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website, “Although health risks from birds are often exaggerated, large populations of roosting crows may present risks of disease to people nearby. The most serious health risks are from disease organisms growing in accumulations of droppings, feathers and debris under a roost. This is most likely to occur if roosts have been active for years." In other words, the only disease crows are likely to be harboring comes from their waste and droppings, much like any other animal. Allegations were also raised as to crows’ role in the spread of West Nile virus, but crows are in actuality the victims rather than the vehicle of infection. The West Nile virus is carried by mosquitoes and most commonly affects crows, which can be used as an early indicator for health risks in human populations. Corvids are no more likely to give you an obscure disease than deer are to give you Lyme disease; so long as you exercise common sense and caution, there is no danger.

Many people unfairly consider crows to be pests. Farmers have a longstanding animosity for crows, because of the birds’ fondness for getting into crops. Although crows can be bothersome, it’s two faced of humans to label crows a nuisance when dozens of other beloved animals exhibit the same behaviors. For example, rabbits also eat the crops of farmers, but no one cringes at the thought of the cute little puff ball. Hal Herzog touches on the importance of adorability in his novel, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. He talks about how, ethically speaking, how cute something is doesn’t count (Herzog 37). Just because we aesthetically appreciate the rabbit more than the crow, doesn’t make the rabbit any better or the crow any worse. Moreover, crows’ more destructive behaviors can be prevented. Russell Link, the aforementioned biologist, suggests, “Protect fruit crops with flexible bird netting, which can be purchased in a variety of lengths and widths at garden and hardware stores or over the Internet from bird-control businesses” (Link). As a rule of thumb, humans should not expect species, who have spent millions of years evolving, to bend over backward to accommodate our fairly recent advancements.

Crows are also viewed as omens of death. Perhaps it’s because of their rattling caw, perhaps it’s because of their coloration. It’s more accurate to say corvids are followers of death, rather than omens or harbingers. Crows are scavengers. This means they eat carrion and other dead animals. Because of their eating habits, crows play an important role in the ecology of their habitats. According to National Geographic’s web article entitled “Scavenger,” “Scavengers play an important role in the food web. They keep an ecosystem free of the bodies of dead animals, or carrion. Scavengers break down this organic material and recycle it into the ecosystem as nutrients” (National Geographic.) Crows and other scavengers, such as hyenas or vultures, help put nutrients back into the environment. Rather than waiting for bodies to decompose and allowing disease to take over in the rotting flesh, these animals are able to break down the decaying biomass faster.

Crows are extraordinarily intelligent. Their brains, in fact, are massive for their size. The novel Gifts of the Crow illustrates this perfectly by comparing crows’ brains to humans’ brains. “A human brain weighs about 1.3 kilograms (three pounds), or 1.9 percent of our total body weight. ... So, why do we get excited about a puny 14-gram (half an ounce) raven brain or the 7.6-gram (quarter ounce) brain of a New Caledonian crow? Because, when standardized for their body size, the crow and raven brains are much larger than expected. In fact, as a percentage of average body mass, they approach or even exceed our brains; raven brains account for 1.4 percent of their body mass, while the New Caledonian Crow’s is a whopping 2.7 percent” (Marzluff & Angell 32). If crows were greater in total body mass and had space for their large brains to grow comparable to a human’s, they might be the most intelligent species.

Corvids use their big brains to meet the challenges of day to day life. For example, crows have learned to use tools and solve puzzles in order to make life easier or earn rewards -- such as cracking nuts open on cars and using twigs to reach places their beaks cannot. Building off this, a man named Joshua Klein has proposed we train crows to mutually benefit they and us. He suggested, on a TED talk, that we create a vending machine for crows. Because of their critical thinking skills, we’re able to teach them how to operate the machine; coins in exchange for peanuts. Klein believes we can use crows to collect change and, in the future, pick up litter and other waste. In exchange, they get an easy meal of peanuts (Klein.)

Crows are social animals who display almost human-esque reactions to the world around them. They display what we perceive to be emotional bonds. Crows, for instance, mate for life. Additionally, when a chick becomes orphaned, a neighboring crow will step in and care for it. Crows display a level of kindness unheard of in most animals. Candace Savage, in her novel Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World, states, “According to classical evolutionary theory, XT’s act of apparent kindness should never have happened. If the purpose of life, crudely stated, is to ensure the survival of one’s own genes, then it is a mistake to help raise anyone except your brothers and sisters or, better yet, your own progeny. The neighbor’s chicks, so far as anyone knows, were not related to XT” (Savage 51). What this quote observes is a crow taking care of a nest of unrelated chicks it gained nothing from helping. This shows that crow behavior extends beyond the survival-of-the-fittest mentality of most other species, proving that they are intelligent enough to form more complex views on life.

Whether or not you love or hate crows, it’s undeniable that they are intelligent, fascinating and truly exceptions in the natural order. Largely, these avians have been given a reputation far worse than they deserve, based on superficial characteristics. However, these birds are just like people; they experience a complex existence burdened by unusual intelligence. Additionally, they are more than they appear to be at a glance, just like any human on Earth. Crow and humankind share a kinship in the conundrum of living -- we are able, albeit on different levels, to comprehend the complexities of being alive. Ergo, crows should be celebrated rather than dehumanized. Maybe then humans wouldn’t be as alone in the world as we think.

Further Reading

"Crow Facts." PBS. PBS, 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Herzog, Hal. "The Importance of Being Cute: Why We Think What We Think About Creatures That Don't Think Like Us." Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat - Why It's so Hard to Think Straight about Animals. New York, NY: Harper, 2010. Print.

Link, Russell. "Crows - Living with Wildlife." Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Marzluff, John M., and Tony Angell. In the Company of Crows and Ravens. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. Print.

Marzluff, John M., and Tony Angell. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave like Humans. New York: Free, 2012. Print.

Savage, Candace Sherk. Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World. Vancouver: Greystone, 2005. Print.

"Scavenger." National Geographic Education. National Geographic, 21 Jan. 2011. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

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