Q. I see crows around the mall near a few fast-food places with outdoor seating. They don’t let people get close but will pick up discarded French fries as well as dropped hot dogs and hamburgers. Occasionally, they pick up condiment packages. Obvious edibles are understandable, but why fool around with unopened mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise packets?
A. Crows are opportunistic scavengers and fast learners. They are likely to investigate anything they find if it might produce a meal. Crows have learned to look in takeout bags that people throw away because there might be leftover food inside. It probably takes a crow only one successful find to make bag-searching a common ritual for it and any buddies who were watching. They probably associate the little packets of condiments with the available food and check them out for a possible reward. Some have surely figured out how to bite open the packets. We should never underestimate the intelligence of crows. Who knows? Maybe some have found they like mustard on a half-eaten hotdog they’ve scavenged.
Q. As I watched a huge flock of crows the other day, several broke off from the main group. They flew back to a dozen or so stragglers and seemed to be herding them, urging them to hurry along and rejoin the others. Does that seem likely? Or is this just an example of good ol’ 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 one with which people have direct experience to help them explain what they observe. However, animals are not humans and scientific observations and explanations may be needed. As for what the explanation might be for crows in the lead returning to those behind, I consulted two colleagues who have extensive knowledge of bird behavior.
Andrew Lydeard (University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory) said it would be “pretty hard to assess what the mindset of the crows might be in that situation, especially if it was just a random flock rather than one being tracked and studied.” Even if crow researchers were studying a known flock, “it would be hard to extrapolate why the crows displayed certain behaviors without extensive context and background about the group and each of the birds.” Questions to ask in a research project would be whether the flock always had the same behavior toward the trailing members and whether the same individuals were always bringing up the rear.
Ornithologist Peter Stangel agreed with Andrew’s assessment, adding “crows are considered highly intelligent” and they engage in some extraordinarily complex behavior patterns. Some behavior has been attributed to the birds observing certain situations in order to learn survival traits, such as more effective food gathering or predator avoidance.
Stangel noted that “maybe the crows were circling back to see if they could learn what was causing the laggards to be so slow.” In other words, perhaps they were not concerned about the slow crows not accompanying the rest of the group but simply wanted to find out if they had spotted a predator — something to avoid — or something else of interest, such as food. To anthropomorphize, maybe they were just curious about why their colleagues were so slow.
Q. I have heard a flock of crows referred to as a “murder of crows.” What’s the origin of that terminology?
A. The expression is one of many whimsical names given to various groups of animals, some as long ago as the Middle Ages. Crows acquired their ignominious label because of an undeserved reputation for being associated with death. Looking like black-coated undertakers did not help this impression. Nor did Alfred Hitchcock do anything to improve the crow’s reputation in his movie “The Birds.” Referring to a group of crows as a flock is fine. But if you’re at a social gathering and can easily slip the phrase a “murder of crows” into the conversation, go for it.
Whit Gibbons is professor of zoology and senior biologist at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. If you have an environmental question or comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.