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Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5
Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

Crows Form, Nurse, and Share Grudges Against People

Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5
Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

Consider this a friendly reminder not to antagonize crows: According to a 2011 study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, American crows remember the faces of people who wrong them, and enlist other birds to attack the offenders.

When it comes to intelligence, birds get no respect. For a long time, scientists assumed birds were stupid because their brains had significant differences from ours. But recent studies on bird brains and abilities are putting those fallacies in their place. Researchers have found sophisticated behavior in birds from finches and pigeons to Antarctic gulls. But there’s one group of birds that consistently amazes: crows and ravens.

Within the last 10 years we’ve learned that crows can make, store, and care for tools. They can count and exercise self-restraint. They can use bait to catch fish. They can certainly play. And, the authors of the Royal Proceedings study say, they can nurse some serious grudges.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s School of Forest Resources bought two masks that looked like human faces. A caveman-looking mask was designated the “dangerous” mask, while a Dick Cheney mask was “neutral.” They then visited wild crows at five sites around Seattle. At each site, the person wearing the caveman mask would approach the crows, trapped a few, banded their legs, and set them free—an experience the birds did not enjoy. As soon as the researcher let them go, the birds began yelling at their captor with a harsh, aggressive cry called “scolding.”

The sounds of conflict attracted more birds, which joined in scolding and attacking the researcher, even though they’d never met. “The mob of two to 15 birds hounds us, sometimes diving from the sky to within a few meters or less. This pursuit lasts about 100 meters (328 feet) as we walk away,” crow expert John Marzluff told Discovery News.

The Dick Cheney mask did not elicit a response.

Marzluff and his colleagues then traveled to other crow territories. The sight of the caveman mask caused an immediate ruckus among these crows—even though none of them had ever been caught or banded. Crows up to a mile away from the original site had heard about this no-good caveman guy, and they knew he was trouble when he walked in.

The grudge didn’t wear off, either. Marzluff said return trips in the caveman mask provoked the same hostile response, even five years later. He told Discovery News, "Individual crows that are adults can live 15-40 years in the wild (most die when young, but those that make it to adulthood can live a long time) and they probably remember important associations they have formed for much of their lives."

These associations aren't all negative. An 8-year-old girl, also in Seattle, made news last year when her family revealed that local crows had pretty much made her their queen.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Why Crows Hold Noisy Funerals for Their Fallen Friends
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The next time you hear a murder of crows cackling for no apparent reason, show a little respect: You may have stumbled onto a crow funeral. Crows are among the few animals that exhibit a social response to a dead member of their species. Though their caws may sound like heartbroken cries, such funerals aren't so much about mourning their fallen friends as they are about learning from their mistakes.

In the video below from the PBS series Deep Look, Kaeli Swift, a researcher at the University of Washington's Avian Conservation Lab, investigates this unusual phenomenon firsthand. She familiarized herself with a group of crows in a Seattle park by feeding them peanuts in the same spot for a few days. After the crows got used to her visits, she returned to the site holding a dead, taxidermied crow and wearing a mask and wig to hide her identity. The crows immediately started their ritual by gathering in the trees and crying in her direction. According to Swift, this behavior is a way for crows to observe whatever might have killed the dead bird and learn to avoid the same fate. Flocking into a large, noisy group provides them protection from the threat if it's still around.

She tested her theory by returning to the same spot the next week without her mask or the stuffed crow. She offered the crows peanuts just as she had done before, only this time the birds were skittish and hesitant to take them from her. The idea that crows remember and learn from their funerals was further supported when she returned wearing the mask and wig. Though she didn't have the dead bird with her this time, the crows were still able to recognize her and squawked at her presence. Even birds that weren't at the funeral learned from the other birds' reactions and joined in the ruckus.

Swift was lucky this group of crows wasn't particularly vengeful. Crows have been known to nurse and spread grudges, sometimes dive-bombing people that have harmed one of their own.

[h/t Deep Look]

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