UW researchers eavesdropping on crows’ caw-versations

Jan 10, 2018, 2:35 PM

Be careful about what you do and say around crows. They might be plotting against you.

“One thing we are looking at are the vocalizations they make in these groups because they could be potentially sharing some kind of information among each other,” said Dr. Doug Wacker, a biology assistant professor at UW Bothell.

RELATED: Dori Monson murdered a crow

Dr. Wacker told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson that researchers are turning their attention to the massive crowds of crows that nest near the campus. They are interested in the communication between the birds and listening for any sort of patterns. In theory, crows can pass along information. Researchers are covertly recording and analyzing the caw-versations.

As The Seattle Times puts it, if a congregation of crows is called a murder, this should be “described as a massacre.” There are more than 16,000 that gather at the North Creek Wetlands in Bothell as the sun goes down. Their numbers darken the sky and UW students even note they sometimes have to dodge droppings.

“That group … at the town center, that’s what we call pre-roost aggregation,” Dr. Wacker said. “These birds start to move toward their communal roost where they sleep for the night … they form these smaller groups and as they get closer and closer to the communal roost, these groups get bigger and bigger. We don’t really know exactly why they are forming these pre-roost aggregations.”

One possibility: they are talking to each other at the end of the day.

This echoes Dori’s experience. He swears the crows know who he is and they don’t like him. Many years ago, Dori grew frustrated with the birds ruining his lawn, so he shot and killed one with a pellet gun. The crows witnessed the whole incident. Since then, the birds would caw, cry and circle him when he left the house. They didn’t do this for anyone else at this home. Only him. It was as if they knew Dori and remembered his crime. This happened for years, between different generations of crows. Dori thinks they passed the information along somehow.

RELATED: Neighbors suing family for feeding crows

According to Dr. Wacker, crows are far more intelligent that most people give them credit for. He notes that some species are known to fashion and use tools.

“It’s hard to assess intelligence outside of humans, but there are a few things crows can do that kind of give us a good idea that they are up there on the spectrum,” he said. “They can solve fairly complicated puzzles and they can do this without a lot of trial and error learning. They can look at a puzzle, perhaps sort a solution or part of a solution out in their head and then execute it. And that’s something that a lot of animals can’t do.”

As for Dori’s crime, Dr. Wacker said that it is possible the birds are passing along information. That’s what researchers hope to find out at UW Bothell.

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UW researchers eavesdropping on crows’ caw-versations