The killing of a sacred crow | Global Ideas | DW | 29.06.2018
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Global Ideas

The killing of a sacred crow

Curiously, the collective noun for crows is "a murder." Curious, since research has shown that when a crow dies, other crows gather to investigate what has happened in order to identify potential threats to the group.

On an early summer's evening in Berlin, a growing crowd of crows (a "murder", if you will) are gathering, somewhat ominously, around two large trees in a small park.

There are possibly 100 or more of them, but they don't seem happy. They are cawing and squawking loudly as they fly around, circling each other, a growing urgency in their cries. After the lengthy conference, they fly off together into the distance, the mystery of the crow cacophony no clearer.

What could explain such behavior? Despite the "bird-brained" misnomer, crows — and other members of the Corvidae family, such as ravens, rooks, jays and magpies — are intelligent creatures. Various studies have shown their ability to develop and shape their own tools for gathering food, recognize individual human faces and even learn modes of human speech.

Counting crows

Research published in the scientific journal Animal Behavior has uncovered another telling insight into crow intellect, one which may explain the striking scene outlined above.

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Shooting crows in Switzerland

The University of Washington study suggests that when crows see that a fellow crow has died, they gather together in large numbers in a sort of 'crow funeral'. However, the aim is not to mourn their fallen friend; rather it is to investigate the reasons for the death so as to identify possible threats to the group.

In the experiment, snacks were put on the ground to attract crows and once a group had gathered, a stuffed dead crow was placed near the feeding spot.

When the researchers stood near the dead crow, crows would gather and loudly caw to each other — a process known as "scolding". In some instances, they attacked researchers and continued to react in this way even when the researchers returned multiple times without a stuffed bird.

Read more: What's the difference between crows and ravens?

The crows did not react in the same way to other taxidermied bird species left on the ground and likewise, other bird test groups, such as pigeons, paid little or no attention to the presence of a taxidermied version of their own kind.

A mythical association

The results supported previous research that suggests crows actively learn about the places associated with the death of one of their species, and can also learn and remember the people apparently complicit in the events.

Russland Wolokolamsk Ausbruch von Deponiegas (imago/ITAR-TASS)

When a large group of crows gather and 'scold', it is often linked to a death

AnotherUniversity of Washington study into crow behavior found that, several years after a researcher wearing a mask had trapped a small group of crows on campus, crows continued to "scold" anyone wearing that same mask walking through campus in ways that were markedly distinct from how they interacted with other people — displaying the ability to identify a human face and associate it with a specific threat, several years after that initial threat had been identified.

Read more: Birdwatchers unite for 24-hour bird binge on Global Big Day 2018

Crows live everywhere in the world except Antarctica and are deeply embedded in the folklore of many global cultures. More often than not, they are associated with death and seen in myth as being unusually in tune with such baleful matters.

The most recent scientific research suggests such associations are far from random. The next time you see a "murder" of crows gathering, it is entirely possible that they are investigating the demise of a comrade.

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