Did You Know Crows Discriminate Languages?
Crows recognize faces. But did you know they are more alert when they hear an unfamiliar language?
“On a bare branch a crow is perched — autumn evening.”
Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644 —1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. He is the greatest master of haiku (then called hokku). But he is not the primary focus of my communication with you today. We’ll learn about how crows can discriminate between different human languages.
Crows are quite intelligent and recall human faces linked with stressful situations for up to five years, and they’ll also warn their friends. They can use tools to dig food out of tight spots. I walk around my work neighborhood frequently and often muse what the creatures are saying. But until I stumbled across some recent research study reports, I had not thought about whether they understand what we humans are saying. Turns out that folks smarter than I are investing in the corvid brain.
Don’t cross a crow
Yes, that crow you treated poorly can remember your face. The birds can recall human faces associated with stressful situations for up to five years. My local institution, the University of Washington (Seattle), demonstrated our corvid colleagues’ extraordinary memory.
The scientists wore a caveman mask before trapping, banding, and releasing wild crows at five zones. They compared these released birds’ reactions as prompted by the caveman mask and by a control mask. The latter depicted the face of former US vice president Dick Cheney.
The Cheney mask did not elicit much of a response, but the caveman mask led to angry flapping and squawking. This reaction came not only from the crows that the researchers had historically captured but also from crows that witnessed the initial trapping.
Here is what I find particularly remarkable. At one of the five capture sites, 20 percent of the crows expressed anger at the caveman face mask, soon after the trapping. After five years, fully 60 percent reacted. It seems that word had spread among the flock that the caveman was dangerous.
Those who feed crows may cue the birds by giving auditory cues, such as a whistling or calling out. Crows can discriminate human voices. Call out “hey,” and a hand-reared carrion crow will show more interest in unfamiliar, rather than familiar, interests. Is it the voice that attracts them, or the fact that someone not known to them utters it? Perhaps the unfamiliar pose more of a potential threat than does a known entity. A new study suggests that crows recognize differences between languages. Moreover, they can distinguish between different human languages.
We turn to a new study that looked at eight wild large-billed crows. The birds were captured in Japan’s metropolitan areas and then cared for by Japanese speakers at Keio University. Presenting at The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 13th International Conference earlier this year, the researchers explained that they used presented recordings from multiple unfamiliar speakers of Dutch or Japanese.
Crows attentive upon hearing a novel language
When they heard familiar acoustics — the Japanese language — the crows did not exhibit a strong reaction. However, when they listened to a playback of an unfamiliar language — Dutch — the crows came to attention. They appeared vigilant and moved closer to the speaker. The large-billed crows understood that they heard different languages.
I should be careful with my English the next time I visit my relatives in Japan. Thank you for joining me today.