Could The Hunters’ Fable Be True? Counting Crows Have Number Neurons!

An old hunters’ story claims that crows can count. The story goes something like this.

“Three hunters go into a hidden blind near a field that a murder of crows like to feed upon. The hunters waited for the crows to enter the range to feed as they usually would, but all of the crows waited patiently from their safe locations. None of the crows entered the shooting range, even though they could not see the hunters in the blind.

“As the morning faded, one hunter finally said, ‘I’m under the gun,’ and left abruptly, but two stayed behind.

“Hours passed, but the crows refused to budge from their safe location. The second hunter, after seeing the early signs that daylight was fading, said, ‘Someday I’m going to stay, but not today,’ as he left the blind. After he left, still no crows entered the shooting range.

“A little while later, the third hunter finally left the blind. As soon as he did, all of the crows rushed to the field to feed.”

People use this anecdote to claim that crows can count.

In Capper’s Farmer, another story claimed a similar event. That story involved a total of 16 hunters.

“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.”

Both are fun stories to pass along as folklore about crows, especially given other popular anecdotes about the superb intelligence of the birds. Most recently, there was the story of the eight-year-old Seattle girl who collected the beautiful gifts left by a local flock of crows that she was feeding. After all, we all want something beautiful.

The Seattle girl’s story was published early this spring in Audubon. People questioned if the crows were using some kind of token economy.

Add to this wonderment, the belief that crows apparently can grasp the concept of water displacement, kind of like in the story of the “Crow and the Pitcher” from Aesop’s Fables.

We also now know that crows can use tools.

Heck, crows can even make tools.

But can crows actually count?

Researchers Helen Ditz and Prof. Andreas Nieder of the University of Tübingen say that they have found scientific evidence that back up the fables that allege counting crows. They say that they have discovered the actual neural basis that could grant crows the ability to count.

First, the researchers trained crows to recognize and differentiate between groups of dots. While the crows were involved in the study, the team recorded neuron responses in an area of the crow endbrain that gets input from the visual system of the birds. What’s so fascinating is that even when the dots are varied in size and location on an image, the crows seem to be able to tell which groups of dots are equal in number. The crows’ neurons ignore the arrangement, shape, and size of the dots in the picture. The crows neurons in this area only extract the number of dots.

Crows, it would seem, can count.

The team published the findings about counting crows in PNAS.

“When a crow looks at three dots, grains or hunters, single neurons recognize the groups’ ‘threeness’,” Ditz said, according to Science Daily. “This discovery shows that the ability to deal with abstract numerical concepts can be traced back to individual nerve cells in corvids.”

Humans and crows count using a very different design, but can both count regardless, it seems, according to Prof. Nieder.

“It seems as if corvids and primates with independently and distinctively developed endbrains have found the same solution to process numbers.”

So, crows can count, but for reasons completely different than why humans can count, and that just begs the question, “Exactly what else do these counting crows know?”

[Photo credit: Image: Andreas Nieder]

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