These Crow Relatives Put Food Over Friendship

Corvids, which are birds encompassing the crow family, exhibit remarkably intricate behaviors. They establish quasi-monogamous bonds, craft tools, host ceremonies, crack puzzles, and may even engage in their version of democratic decision-making.

A recent revelation from a study released on September 11 in Nature highlights another dimension to their multifaceted existence—the pursuit of higher social status.

The study suggests that, like humans, these birds may sometimes forsake longtime companions for newer, seemingly advantageous ties. In a novel experiment, scholars from the universities of Exeter and Bristol leveraged the Cornish Jackdaw Project to segregate jackdaws—crows’ kin native to Europe, North Africa, and western Asia—into two distinct groups labeled A and B.

The researchers fitted these birds with transponder chips, akin to tiny bracelets, to identify individual members. Most studies involving animals have some food element. In this case, the researchers established a feeding station with dual locked compartments—one stocked with plain grain, an average treat for a peckish crow, and another with an enticing mix of grain and dried mealworms.

When a lone bird approached, only the ordinary feed compartment would unlock. If paired with a peer from an identical group, like two As or two Bs, either both compartments became accessible or just the premium feed one.

However, when a jackdaw from one group partnered with one from the other group at the food dispenser, no treats were dispensed. Faced with a decision, the avians had to choose between allegiance and appetizing rewards.

Yet, this wasn’t always the case with kinship ties. Even with the prospect of no reward, jackdaws remained loyal to their children, siblings, or partners. Some enduring bonds, it seems, held more value for these winged beings than a tempting treat.

The researchers believe these findings shed light on the evolutionary trajectory of intellect, recall, and social hierarchy not just in animals but potentially in human societies as well.