HSU Wildlife Instructor: Crows Are Smarter Than You Think

Crows are among the most intelligent animals on the planet. But just how smart are they? A new "study":http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/eth.12064/abstract;jsessioni… led by wildlife faculty member Barbara Clucas suggests that they can tell when humans are watching them and adapt their behavior accordingly.

Clucas and a team of researchers wanted to find out whether crows could pick up on non-verbal communication—like eye contact—from humans. “While most wildlife biologists focus on interactions between animals, we were interested in studying non-verbal communication between humans and animals,” she says. Their research was published in the April issue of the journal Ethology.


For the study, they approached crows at various locations in Seattle, Wash. while either staring directly at them or looking away. The crows flew away sooner when they were being stared at, compared to when humans walked toward them while averting their gaze. Simply put, crows can tell when we’re watching them.

It may sound a little eerie, but according to Clucas, it probably serves an important evolutionary function. Most animals scatter as soon as a human gets close, regardless of where the person is looking. Crows on the other hand, can differentiate between people who are approaching them and those who are simply passing by, suggesting that they’ve adapted to living in urban environments.

“This awareness allows them to devote more time to foraging and other activities while in close proximity to people who are not focusing attention on them,” Clucas says. In other words, crows can tell what we’re up to by simply looking at our faces.

Clucas is a lecturer in HSU’s Wildlife Department. Her research focuses on animal behavior and urban ecology, interspecific interactions and how they affect species survival and contribute to the evolution of behavior. To see the full study, visit the April issue of Ethology.