What is a corvid? There are just over 120 species of corvids, a family of songbirds that includes the crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws, as well as the more colourful jays, magpies and nutcrackers. Although belonging to the same order as nightingales and other birds with melodious songs (Oscines), corvids tend to be identified by their raucous calls. Little is known about corvid songs, perhaps because they are surprisingly quiet. Corvids can be found throughout the globe, except for the southern most tip of South America and the polar ice caps. Many of the common species, such as magpies and crows, steal other birds' eggs and raid agricultural crops. They are therefore treated with disdain by many birdwatchers and farmers.
Why study intelligence in crows? Corvids have not always had such a bad press. Native Americans believed that a raven had created the earth; the Norse god, Odin, consulted two ravens Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory) for their wisdom; and Aesop cast corvids as the smart protagonists in many of his fables. Along with their reputation in folklore as the wisest of animals, corvids have the largest brains for their body size of any bird. Perhaps most surprisingly, the crow brain is the same relative size as the chimpanzee brain. Other aspects of corvid biology also give us clues to their intelligence. In the wild, young corvids have an extensive developmental period before they become independent from their parents. This allows them more opportunities to learn the essential skills for later life. Many corvids also live in complex social groups. For example, in the cooperatively breeding Florida scrub-jay, several closely related family members share the responsibility of raising the young with the parents. Furthermore, rooks congregate in large colonies, where juveniles associate with many non-relatives as well as kin. In both cases, this long developmental period provides increased opportunities for learning from many different group members.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that many corvids are also renowned for their innovative feeding skills. For example, Japanese crows in Sendai City have learned to crack nuts safely by dropping them onto pedestrian crossings and waiting until the traffic lights turn red before retrieving the nut's contents. Rooks at a motorway service station in England have discovered a novel method for gaining access to food thrown in rubbish bins. Two birds cooperate in pulling up the bin liner and then either feeding from the raised food or tossing the contents onto the ground where the waiting crowd of colony mates reap the rewards.
As the crow flies… Most of the corvids that have been studied in detail hide food for the future in times of food abundance and then rely on memory to recover the food caches at a later date when food is scarce. For example, the Clark's nutcracker is estimated to hide over 30,000 pinyon seeds in many different places during the autumn in preparation for the harsh months ahead. Laboratory experiments have shown that they have highly accurate spatial memories, which enable them to recover these caches up to 9 months later. This is no mean feat when there are so many caches to keep track of, scattered throughout the territory, and when many aspects of the landscape change so dramatically across seasons. It has been suggested that Clark's nutcrackers rely on remembering the location of large vertical landmarks such as trees and rocks in the environment, because these landmarks are unlikely to be blown away or buried under the snow.