He's a crow man: John Marzluff @ Butler 

The famous caveman mask that so annoys the crows.
  • The famous caveman mask that so annoys the crows.

John Marzluff watches birds and birds watch him. Sometimes they scold him, even swooping dangerously by his head, but only when he wears his caveman mask.

Tuesday at Butler, Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, willshare his remarkable research on corvids — crows, jays, ravens and magpies — trying to make sense of how creatures with a brain the size of your thumb can be so darn smart.

And, yes, I said caveman mask. One of Marzluff's best-known experiments involved capturing crows while wearing a caveman mask. After about ten minutes, he let the bird go, and any subsequent interaction in that same area would result in crows scolding and yelling at him — but only when he wore the caveman mask.

Over time, Marzluff and his research associates found that more and more crows would scold him — over further and further distances — demonstrating both horizontal and vertical social learning behavior, just one indication of the highly intelligent nature of these birds.

Marzluff lives in Seattle; we spoke by phone in anticipation of his upcoming visit.

NUVO: I've heard you say that you study crows because of their 'variable behavior repertoire.' What do you mean by that?

John Marzluff: You might think of quick responses to novel challenges in their environment; for example, when new foods are made available, a new crop or a new source of human refuse. Take something like Cheetos. How does an animal respond to a bright orange pile on the sidewalk? Most animals would go right by, not even give it a second chance. A crow will take a look, take a peck at it, sample it and incorporate it into its diet – if it's edible or avoid it if it's a dangerous thing. So they are always testing their environment.

Another example is the comings and goings to a night roost. Crows, if they are harassed in one area, will avoid that area - they won't continue to go back to a bad situation, such as a farmer protecting his field with a shotgun. They'll immediately shift their behavior, and all the other birds associated with those pioneer learners will follow course — and they'll be a lot safer because of that ability to adapt.

NUVO: Your response reminded me of the description of a human toddler: constantly testing their environment.

Marzluff: Corvids are quick, even quicker than we are when we are very young, at incorporating these reinforcements from their environment – be they positive or negative – into their routine. That's what makes them able to survive with us.

NUVO: A lot of your research is about the social learning strategies in crows.

Marzluff: It's quite simple. They communicate mainly by demonstrating. Birds that have had an experience and gained knowledge act in a different way. They go to the food without hesitation or stay away from a danger. Other birds key upon the actions of those knowledgeable individuals.

They are watching extremely closely everything in their environment, including one another. When they see one crow swoop down to a food source that they have no idea about, they are right there with them. They don't hesitate. They teach through demonstration ... With respect to learning through demonstration, we humans demonstrate a lot of things, but we don't model excellent behavior probably nearly to the extent that crows and other animals do. There's such a high survival premium on doing the right thing and having reliable knowledge ...

NUVO: A lot of human social interaction now takes place on platforms like Facebook. Are there any comparisons you can make of crows to human obsession with social networking?

click to enlarge John Marzluff
  • John Marzluff

Marzluff: Information spreads extremely rapidly through a crow society. There aren't sending messages through the ether to each other. Maybe it's the antithesis of Facebook. That is, they get face time with one another. And they do it every night gathering at large roosts, up to a million or more individuals in some places. They're chatting and screaming and yelling and I don't know what all is going on, but they are all there and participating face to face.

I saw an extreme example of this just a few nights ago watching the local roost. They came in and sat in the higher trees – and there are about 5 or ten thousand birds; it's Hitchcockian. What they do just as it's getting dark is all land on a new softball field. It's artificial turf so they aren't foraging. They are standing shoulder to shoulder – thousands of birds – blackening the ground. They are getting face time.

It's the opposite of what we now are doing. We're avoiding those close, tight encounters where a lot of important biological signals are given off. I think we're missing out on that kind of close, personal communication that these crows are doing every night.

NUVO: We have massive roosts here in Indianapolis.

Marzluff: We don't fully understand the social dimension of it. But the direct benefits are pretty clear. One thing they are doing is reducing commuting costs among the group. They may be foraging in several places during the day. They come to an intermediate place to spend the night so the amount of travel for each individual bird is minimized.

NUVO: They are worrying about their carbon emissions!

Marzluff (laughs): Exactly! Secondly, they are being in a protected place, relatively safe spot that doesn't have many owls, for example, a major night predator. Plus, there is safety in numbers. And there may be some thermal benefits from the heat island effect – they're using our carbon footprint.

NUVO: Is it fair to say that the encroachment by humans led to crows being so intelligent?

Marzluff: It made them more abundant than they otherwise would be. The way we change the landscape plays perfectly into their hand. We make exactly what crows want: a mixture of land covers. In terms of challenging them and causing them to evolve with us -- you can't imagine a more unpredictable environment than one caused by humans. One day it might be forest, the next day it might field. Or, the temperature fluctuates widely. All the things we do happens on a quick time pace.

For a bird to be able to respond to us —especially when it lives 20 or 30 or more years — they have to be able to learn and remember and adjust. So I think living with a smart animal makes you smarter. Or it makes you extinct. Unfortunately we've done both.

They were pretty darn innovative before we here, though. This has been their lifestyle to forage in rich but unpredictable places, be they buffalo kills or tidelands or whatever. They were ready for us when we came on the scene.

NUVO: What can we learn from crows?

Marzluff: The animals we share the world with are watching us very closely. Their brains are finely tuned to our activities. They remember what we do. They learn from our actions how to take advantage of us or how to avoid us. They are very very keen on what we are doing.

My suggestion is that we use that same lens when we look at the wild animals around us. We don't just ignore them. We don't do things we know are destructive to them. We think carefully about what we're doing and how that might affect them. Just as they are thinking carefully about what they are doing and how they might affect us.

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