Birds have been part of the Halloween tradition for a long time — even before the demonic few from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in 1963! The birds most commonly shown are crows and ravens, which are members of the corvidae family. This family of birds makes up a variety of passerines including jackdaws, rooks, crows, ravens, magpies, jays, choughs, and nutcrackers.
Even though the “black birds” in this family have a role in the dark side of Halloween, folklore often represents corvids as clever and even mystical animals. Some Native Americans, such as the Haida, believed that a raven created the Earth and, despite being a trickster spirit, ravens were popular on totems, credited with creating man and placing the sun in the sky.
Crows and ravens share the same genus — Corvus — and with jackdaws makes up a third of all of the family members. They are considered the most intelligent of the birds and among the most intelligent of all animals having demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests (European Magpies) and tool making ability (crows, rooks) — skills until recently regarded as solely the province of humans and a few other higher mammals. Their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to that of great apes and cetaceans, and only slightly lower than that of humans.
Crows most likely became part of the tradition due to a number of their habits, including their feeding habits. Crows are large and black with a “caw caw” sound that it often considered grating compared with the melodic sounds of other passerines. This shrill call has an unsettling sound to many who hear it in gray autumn skies. These birds are scavengers, like vultures and condors, and this plays into the macabre of Halloween. Due to their carrion diet, even before the traditions of Halloween, the Celtic peoples strongly associated corvids with war, death, and the battlefield. They were known to feast on the remains of those struck down in battle.
Ravens are found in the same genus and share some similar traits. They are meat eaters like their cousins and black and have a similar shape. They are larger than crows and unlike crows, they are more solitary in nature while crows are much more gregarious! Being larger they have a deeper but similar caw sound. It was the poem by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven,” that may have led to the association of ravens and hence crows at Halloween. The narrator in the poem calls the raven a thing of evil and a prophet, suggesting a connection with the supernatural. This talking raven responds to the questions of the narrator helping to drive him mad. His intelligence and talking ability adds to the mystery of the poem and reflects the natural abilities of these amazing birds.
Their great intelligence meant that they were often considered messengers, or manifestations of the gods, such as Bendigeidfran Blessed Raven or the Irish Morrigan, underworld deities that may be related to the later Arthurian Fisher King. This plays into a common theme throughout history of specific species of birds in various cultures transmitting the soul to the heavens or the underworld.
The intelligence of crows has taken a recent turn using old-fashioned behavioral studies linked with new scanning techniques. One study looked at how these birds respond to the sight of human faces. It is known that crows take to the skies more quickly when an approaching person looks directly at them, as opposed to when an individual nears with an averted gaze, according to a report by biologist Barbara Clucas of Humboldt State University and her colleagues in the April issue of Ethology. The researchers walked toward groups of crows in three locations in the Seattle area, with their eyes either on the birds or on some point in the distance. The crows scattered earlier when the approaching person was looking at them, unlike other animals that avoid people no matter what a person is doing.
Clucas speculates that ignoring a human who has an averted gaze is a learned adaptation to life in the big city. Indeed, many studies have shown that crows are able to learn safety behaviors from one another. For example, John Marzluff of the University of Washington (who co-authored the aforementioned paper with Clucas) used masked researchers to test the learning abilities of crows. He and his colleagues ventured into Seattle parks wearing one of two kinds of masks. The people wearing one kind of mask trapped birds; the others simply walked by.
Five years later, the scientists returned to the parks with their masks. The birds present at the original trapping remembered which masks corresponded to capturing, and they passed this information to their young and other crows. All the crows responded to the sight of a researcher wearing a trapping mask by immediately mobbing the individual and shrieking.
Although humans take it for granted, this type of social learning is cognitively complex and rare in the animal kingdom, according to Marzluff. “It’s one thing to learn from one’s own experience and another to observe that happening to other individuals and infer it could happen to you,” he explained.
A crow recognizes human faces using the same visual pathways in the brain as humans do. In fact birds are more visual than people! A 2012 study using PET scans found that when crows viewed human faces that they associated with threat or care, the birds had increased activity in the amygdala, thalamus, and brain stem, areas related to emotional processing and fear learning. In response to threatening faces, areas that regulate perception, attention, and fleeing also lit up in these studies.
The similarity to human brain activity and the parallels in social intelligence in general are significant. The newer concept is that the brain evolves based on the sociality of the species. Corvids tend to be more social and this higher social aspect with their peers requires greater brain processing. So while we might be scared on the Halloween night with the cawing of crows, just think, that’s right think … and we, like crows share some interesting intelligent abilities!