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Crows as Pets: The African Pied Crow, a Most Intelligent Bird

Pied Crow, Etosha

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My fascination with Corvids (crows, ravens, jays and their relatives) began in childhood, when I cared for injured American Crows and Blue Jays.  In time, I was able to work with their exotic relatives at the Bronx Zoo, and was thrilled to observe the antics of Japan’s famous tool-using Carrion Crows (please see article below) in the wild.  Possessed of keen intelligence, insatiable curiosity and voice-mimicking abilities, hand-raised crows have few equals as avian pets.  Native Corvids are protected in the USA, but foreign species may be kept, and several are regularly bred by hobbyists.  Among these is the spectacular African Pied Crow, Corvus alba, which makes as responsive a pet as can be imagined.


Although not common in the US pet trade, the Pied Crows that appeared in recent Windex TV ads have now made the species somewhat recognizable.  Once seen, this 20-inch tall bird will not be forgotten.  The Pied Crow sports an impressively-thick black beak that is midway in size between that of the American Crow and the White-Necked Raven (please see photo).  A brilliant white collar and breast contrasts sharply with the glossy, jet-black plumage.

Range and Habitat

Africa’s widest ranging Corvid, the Pied Crow occurs south of the Sahara and inhabits most of the eastern and southern portions of the continent.  They are also found on Aldabra, Madagascar, the Comoros and other nearby islands.

Pied Crows favor open forests and wooded scrub, but are often most common near towns, cities and farms.  They do not occur in the rainforests or deserts.

African Pied Crows as Pets

Even casual observation reveals crows to be unusually intelligent…and not “just” by bird standards!  Recent studies have shown that their tool-making and problem-solving abilities are on par with those of some great apes (please see articles linked below).  Both ornithologists and those who have worked with crows generally consider them to be the most intelligent of all birds…apologies to parrot fanciers!

All are excellent mimics, and need little if any encouragement to copy sounds and words.  Naturally social, crows quickly bond to their owners and may even learn to respond to simple commands.  Their great intelligence is accompanied by a sensitive nature…despite being quite bold, Pied Crows are easily stressed by unthinking behavior on the part of their owners.  They will not forget actions they perceive as threatening, so be careful not to make any mistakes…please post below for further information. Read More »

Unique Bird Behavior – Ravens Use Beaks to “Show” Objects to Mates

RavenThe act of holding up or pointing to an object, in order to draw another’s attention, has been observed only among ourselves and Great Apes.  Known as deictic gesturing, this behavior is considered critical to the development of language, and a sign of great intelligence (you parents will likely recall the first time your toddler did something similar!).  Along with parrots, crows, and magpies, Common Ravens, Corvus corax, have proven themselves among the brightest of the world’s birds.  Recently, they have been observed to utilize deictic gestures, and are the only birds known to do so.

“Hey…look at this if you care about me”!

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Vienna have reported that Ravens pick up objects such as stones, branches and moss and show them to other Ravens.  In most cases, the bird being solicited is the other’s mate.  Once his or her attention is drawn, the pair usually jointly manipulates the object for a time.  Read More »

Do Tool-Using Crows Surpass Parrots (and Great Apes!) in Intelligence?

Researchers at Auckland and Oxford Universities have recently (August, 2009) published reports that may establish the New Caledonian crow, Corvus moneduloides, as the world’s most intelligent non-human animal.  Related to the familiar North American crow and raven (very bright birds in their own right…please see photo), New Caledonian crows have exhibited tool-using abilities that exceed those of even the most accomplished chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas.


Birds with Reasoning Abilities?

In the Oxford University experiment, 5 New Caledonian crows were presented with a series of tools, some of which were out of reach, and an unreachable food item.  All five crows figured out the dilemma in sort order – four on the very first try.

The crows used the short, available tool to reach a longer tool, which was then used to hook and retrieve a still longer implement.  Equipped with the longest tool, the birds then pulled the food within reach.  Amazingly, none of the crows exhibited random experimentation – rather, each unerringly chose the proper tool to accomplish each part of the task at hand!

Never before has an animal demonstrated such a sophisticated degree of sequential tool use.  In fact, the crows, none of which had prior training, surpassed even what has been accomplished by well-trained primates faced with similar problems.  Scientists are now trying to determine if “analytical abilities” are involved (seems so to me!).

Gorillas and Parrots

I’m very impressed by the crows, but must also admit being floored by the cunning of a baby gorilla I cared for at the Bronx Zoo.  I was sitting with the animal all night to prevent her from pulling out an IV line attached to her arm.  She very definitely feigned sleep and then slowly inched her hand towards the IV line when I looked away.  Each time I turned towards her, she went “back to sleep”!
Of course we all have our parrot stories…please write in with some that might compete with these crows!


Further Reading

Please check out this amazing video of a New Caledonian crow in action at Auckland University.

One of the crows involved, known to researchers as “Betty”, has made animal behavior headlines in the past.  To read about her tool-making abilities (in this case, bending a wire into a useful hook), please check out the following National Geographic article: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/08/0808_020808_crow.html.



Research Update – Do Parrots Recognize Individual Human Faces?

Those Observant Parrots
Parrot keepers are well aware that individual birds often “take to” one person or to people of one sex only, and respond with aggression or fear to others.  Long –term pet parrots most definitely react differently to the various people living in the household – seeming to know what they can “get away with” with one person,  when to expect a scratch on the head from another, and so on.

The Brightest Birds
Wildlife biologists at the University of Washington have recently (August, 2008) confirmed that crows do indeed recognize and remember the faces of individual people.  Crows and their relatives – jays, ravens and magpies – are among the most intelligent of birds, and are often compared to parrots in this regard.  I’m quite sure that the results of this research would be duplicated if conducted on parrots.

The Experiment
Researchers wearing masks designated as “dangerous” trapped, banded and released crows on the university’s grounds.  While subsequently walking about the campus wearing the “dangerous” masks, the researchers were consistently scolded and mobbed (harassed) by crows….when unmasked or wearing “neutral” masks, the researchers went unnoticed.  When paired with “neutral” mask wearers on walks, only the “dangerous” researchers drew the crows’ wrath.

Birds Teaching Birds
What’s more, although only 7 crows were trapped (the experiment was later repeated with a larger sample), 47 individual crows scolded the researchers.  Although crows will respond to the alarm calls of others, in some instances the originally trapped crows were not present when others sent up the alarm – obviously the trapped crows had somehow passed along their new-found knowledge to their neighbors!

Implication for Conservation
We’ve long known that fledgling birds will imprint (bond with, to the exclusion of their own species) upon general human characteristics…while hand-rearing barn owls and other species destined for release, I always work from behind a curtain, and such is standard protocol at most zoos.  This study, however, offers the first concrete evidence of individual face recognition.

I’m sure you parrot owners have many stories of your pets’ own remarkable abilities.

An interesting article providing further evidence of the keen environmental and people-oriented awareness possessed by parrots is posted at:

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