Q. I see crows around the mall near some fast food places with outdoor seating. They don’t let people in, but they will pick up discarded fries as well as dropped hot dogs and hamburgers. Occasionally, they pick up condiment packets. Obvious edibles are understandable, but why waste time with unopened packets of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise?
A. Ravens are opportunistic scavengers and quick learners. Anything they find is likely to be investigated if it can produce a meal. Crows have learned to look in takeout bags that people throw away because there may be food leftovers inside. It probably takes a raven only one successful find for the bag hunt to become a common ritual for him and any friends watching him. They are likely to associate the condiment packets with the food available and seek them out for a possible reward. Some have surely figured out how to bite open packages. We should never underestimate the intelligence of ravens. Who knows? Some of you may have discovered that you like mustard on a half-eaten hot dog that you’ve scavenged.
Q. While watching a large flock of crows the other day, several strayed from the main group. They flew toward a dozen stragglers and seemed to be herding them, urging them to hurry up and join the others. Does it seem likely? Or is it just an example of good anthropomorphism?
A. Attributing human traits to an animal is a natural first step in trying to explain some behaviors. After all, human behavior is the only behavior that people have direct experience with that helps explain what they observe. However, animals are not human and scientific observations and explanations may be needed. As to what could be the explanation for the leading crows returning to the back ones, I consulted two colleagues who have extensive knowledge of bird behavior.
Andrew Lydeard (University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory) said it would be “quite difficult to assess what the mindset of the ravens might be in that situation, especially if it were a random flock rather than one being tracked and studied. Even if raven researchers were studying a known flock, “it would be difficult to extrapolate why ravens displayed certain behaviors without extensive context and background on the group and individual birds.” The questions to be asked in a research project would be whether the flock always had the same behavior towards the rear members and whether the same individuals were always rearing.
Ornithologist Peter Stangel agreed with Andrew’s assessment, adding that “ravens are considered to be highly intelligent” and engage in some extraordinarily complex behavioral patterns. Certain behavior has been attributed to birds observing certain situations to learn survival traits, such as more effective food gathering or predator avoidance.
Stangel noted that “perhaps the ravens were hanging around to see if they could learn what was causing the stragglers to be so slow.” In other words, he may not have been concerned that the slow ravens weren’t accompanying the rest of the group, but simply wanted to know if they’d seen a predator, something to avoid, or something else of interest, like food. To anthropomorphize, perhaps they were just curious as to why their colleagues were so slow.
Q. I have heard of a flock of crows as “crow murder.” What is the origin of that terminology?
A. The expression is one of many fanciful names given to various groups of animals, some as early as the Middle Ages. Ravens acquired their infamous label due to an undeserved reputation for being associated with death. The appearance of black-robed gravediggers did not help this impression. Alfred Hitchcock also did nothing to improve the reputation of the raven in his movie “The Birds.” Referring to a group of ravens as a flock is fine. But if you’re at a social gathering and can easily slip the phrase “murder of crows” into the conversation, go for it.
Whit Gibbons is professor of zoology and senior biologist at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. If you have an environmental question or comment, please email email@example.com.