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Crows are often thought of as scavengers. But they are also smart and playful.

Crows are very social, have terrific memories and can use tools.

Crows aren’t just natural cleanup crews that devour dead animals or discarded food. They also are playful and smart, use tools, remember human faces and mimic sounds. Catherine Sevcenko of the nonprofit organization Diva Crows holds Aurora, an American crow. At right, Aurora shows off artwork she created with tools. (Photos by Ann Cameron Siegal)
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Try explaining to a teacher that a crow flew off with your homework.

Years ago, Tricia McNamara, then 12, played soccer with her Rockville, Maryland, classmates before school. A crow the kids had nicknamed Blackie often joined them — trying to land on the ball.

When Blackie showed up one day on the school playground, McNamara said, “I set my books down outside the door and approached, talking to him.” He flew over to her books and grabbed the homework sticking out of one.

“We tried coaxing him with food from someone’s lunch, but he flew off with the paper,” she said. “Fortunately, I had witnesses.”

Many people just see crows as a natural cleanup crew — devouring rodents, insects, dead animals or discarded food in overflowing trash cans. But researchers have found that crows are not only playful and mischievous but also intelligent. They use tools to solve complex problems, and they remember faces for years and mimic sounds they hear.

'Always testing their environment'

“Crows are always testing their environment,” said John Marzluff, University of Washington professor of wildlife science. “Anything that looks potentially edible, they will mess with and try it.”

This trait has led to interesting scientific findings. Some crows use sticks to retrieve hard-to-get treats. In other experiments, they seem to understand the idea of water displacement. Crows learned to drop stones into narrow containers to raise water to a level where they can drink it or reach a floating treat inside. (That observation isn’t new. It’s mentioned in the centuries-old story “The Crow and the Pitcher.”)

Social, noisy birds

Crows are social, living in large extended families of more than a dozen birds. Communication is key to their survival. Many calls are used — each signifying a different message. For example, they have separate warning calls for cats, hawks and people. Loud “caws” are their most common vocalizations, but they also use clicks, rattles and coos. Some crows even imitate the sounds of other animals and people.

Recognizing human faces

Marzluff conducted several experiments to determine whether wild crows remember human faces. In one, researchers wearing masks captured seven crows around the University of Washington campus and banded them. After releasing the crows, researchers found that regular passersby got no reaction, but as soon as anyone wearing the same mask passed by, the crows made loud warning calls — even years later.

Catherine Sevcenko of Diva Crows in Alexandria, Virginia, warns, “Never be mean to a crow. They not only remember faces but teach their offspring who to beware of.” They also remember those who were kind to them and pass that information along, too, often bringing gifts of rocks or other small objects as a thank you.

Using tools to paint

Diva Crows is a nonprofit wildlife rescue organization specializing in helping wounded or orphaned songbirds. While it’s illegal to keep crows as pets, Sevcenko has permits to keep Aurora — a crow who can’t be released back into the wild — as an educational bird used in school and other presentations.

“Crows are supersmart, and so [they] have to be kept entertained,” she said.

Painting is one of Aurora’s favorite activities, allowing her to use tools such as paintbrushes, bowls and rollers. “We never force her to do art,” Sevcenko said. “But offer her the chance every day in case she is feeling creative.”

Fun facts

●The American crow and the fish crow are the two native crow species in the Washington area.

●Despite their harsh-sounding calls, crows are considered songbirds — species with complex muscles around their voice boxes that use many vocalizations.

● Crows belong to a group called Corvids, which includes ravens, jays and magpies.

● Crows have iridescent black feathers that seem to change colors as light hits them from different angles. Sometimes you can see blue, green or purple in them.

Learn more

The Audubon Society explains how to tell American crows from fish crows: wapo.st/audubon_crow.

Listen to Aesop’s fable “The Crow and the Pitcher”: wapo.st/aesop_crow.

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