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Economic and Social History Blog

31. How do you get smart? (23-4-2020)

How do you get smart? (23-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

The crow is probably the smartest bird that regularly visits our garden. They always come together, sit on the roof for a few minutes, one of them tries to find some food in the garden itself, and then they are chased away by the magpies. It is actually no real crows, but kauwtjes, or ‘Eurasian Jackdaw’, but in their behaviour, they are very similar to crows, so I will mix them up in this blog. They in a way form the outer defence line of the territory here: when an enemy form ‘outer space’ shows up – usually a buzzard, nesting in a park nearby – it is the crows who have the guts to fight for their territory, and chase them away (the magpies are conspicuously silent during such a crisis). So there are layers of territorial rights, linked to complex patterns of warfare in our garden – and I am sure I notice and understand only a minute fraction of it.

Crows have suffered a lot because they are black and in the imagination of homo sapiens linked to graves and death, and because they as omnivores to some extent compete with humans – they might eat from the grain harvest (think of Van Gogh’s paintings of crows in wheat fields). They appear in Hitchcocks’ Birds (together with seagulls) and lead, in Schubert Winterreise, the wandering soul to the grave. This bad PR meant that they have been prosecuted intensely over the centuries, and governments have stimulated this by awarding bonuses on the killing of crows and crow-like birds such as ravens, jackdaws and rooks.

I personally like them because they are masters of the art of ‘flying apart together’. They always operate in pairs, but move through the terrain almost independently from each other, still keeping an eye on their partner and never losing contact. So he may sit on top of a tree, as an outlook, while she is inspecting the latest heap of dog dung that has been deposited on the grass; after this, she may fly to the next tree, and he could well land on a nearby road to look for interesting roadkill. And occasionally they sit together on a branch, chat a bit, and decide what to do next.

This art of being a pair and an individual at the same time, is, I think a proof of their smartness. But there are other proofs as well. Crows can count to six, for example. This has been established in the following way. A pair of crows living near a bird hide was observed from a great distance; when people were inside the hide, they behaved differently (kept their distance, were less relaxed) than when nobody was inside. Then two bird watchers went inside, and one came out again after some time. They clearly understood that there was still one birdwatcher inside the hide, and only changed to relax mode after he/she left. Then the experiment was repeated with 3, 4, 5 and 6 birdwatchers, and when 6 went in and 5 came out, the crows still knew there was one inside. Above six they could not keep track anymore, however. Ergo, crows can count to six, which is not bad for a bird.

Perhaps we made crows so smart. By constantly persecuting them, only the really smart birds survived. For foxes it has been established that those who are living in the countryside (easy living, predictable environment) are less smart than the foxes surviving in cities, who manage to perform difficult tasks to get some food much better than rural foxes. Cities offer many opportunities, but you have to be innovative and flexible to survive and prosper.

The question is why we as homo sapiens are so smart? Why did we specialize, in our niche on the African savannah, on intelligence, on big brains, on solving new puzzles. Do we have to thank the lion and the hyena for putting so much pressure on our chances for survival?  The usual answer is that we were/became social animals, who were able to coordinate their activities, in particular when hunting – a bit like the flying apart together of the crows. But who forced us into such a niche? It is understandable that once you have started such a development path – invented stone tools, and coordination of hunting activities – it could be reinforcing, cumulative (as we have seen in the past 100.000 years), but what kick-started it?

Continue reading: In Maddison’s footsteps (24-4-2020)