Crows can count – at least to 16

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COUNTING CROW: This crow may not know its ABCs, but don't sell it short - it seems that it and its winged brethren are smart enough to put two and two together.

I grew up fond of crows. The loud, voracious birds made a daily pilgrimage to one of our trees, where they hunted for scraps of yesterday’s bread in the grass. On days I didn’t feed them, bad things happened – the bread did not rise or the mailman did not bring anything interesting. Perhaps the birds are lucky. In days of antiquity, they were considered a sacred bird of the god Apollo. (The bird also figures in Celtic lore; closer to home, they are considered a keeper of the sacred law by some Native American people.)

The birds weren’t held in such high esteem by my neighbors. Over the wheat-lined fields and rows of corn, their black bodies often hovered. They were known as a pest to people in the country and city alike. Calling out from the tops of scarecrows, they invited slingshots or raised fists. (Scarecrows weren’t the only thing they perched on. Grain elevators, laundry lines with clean sheets and water lines all held their share of the birds’ dark, beaked silhouettes.)

One brainy bird

When the ground was being broken, the crows would first appear. With a Chaplinesque walk, they followed the threshing machines, scooping up the bugs brought to the surface. They’d follow the farmers planting seeds, or wait in patient formation among the trees. We’d try shooing them away when the crop was just right to harvest. Somehow they always knew when to show up.

Crows are smart. I have seen them pluck nuts from trees and dash them on the stones below. The youngest ones dropped their nuts from the highest. The old crows would wait below for the prize. With age comes wisdom. But can they count? Maybe so.

A farmer in England found that every day he went in his blind in the field, the crows would stay away. But once he had left, they would fly into the fields and feed. He brought a friend with him one day to follow him into the blind, thinking the crows would spot one of them leaving and then come down to eat at the crops, thinking that no one was watching.

But the crows knew that a second man was still in the blind. The next day they tried it with another man, then another. The crows counted and subtracted. They knew that someone was still waiting for them in the blind. It was only after they reached 16 men that the crows lost count.