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May 11, 2011 / Dr. Toad


The other day, a sunny spring day here in Seattle, I walked through Volunteer park. A murder of crows (no, really) was heard and seen in the park’s blooming trees. It made me think of how crows and the biologists who study them have received a lot of attention lately.


Keulemans's Corvus moneduloides, New Caledonian Crow

In case you can’t be bothered to follow the links (they all say the same thing): John Marzluff, a UW wildlife biologist, was funded by DARPA (or was it the DOD?) to see if crows could be used to find missing soldiers, or even to find Bin Laden. Marzluff has been studying crows for decades, and showed experimentally that they remembered the face of someone who repeatedly mistreated them, and even transmitted that learned information to other crows. In principle, someone wearing a Bin Laden mask could have attacked some crows in Pakistan and then waited for them to discover the real Bin Laden and show a lot of distress and aggression toward him. Then the Navy SEALs would swoop in.

The military actually abandoned the funding of this project before the results were published last year in the journal Animal Behavior. And as we all know now, Bin Laden was found by a murder of CIA agents on the ground in Pakistan rather than crows.

So is that really a good reason for years-old research to suddenly become news, because of what may have been? Isn’t the intelligence of crows interesting and newsworthy on its own? In addition to recognizing and remembering people’s faces, crows can use tools, plan a course of action, and play a trick on another crow.

On Monday, May 23rd, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, another Seattle biologist will do a reading from her book Crow Planet at the Elliot Bay Bookstore on Capitol Hill.

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