Snowboarding corvid

by Matthew Cobb

This Russian corvid is either having fun snowboarding down the roof, or is frustrated by the fact that it can’t keep still and find a place to peck at whatever this thing is (a frozen doughnut?). Includes soundtrack of Russian family chatting about it. So here are today’s questions:

a) Everyone: Is the bird having fun or is it frustrated? And how could we tell?

b) Birders: ID the corvid, please

c) Russophones: What are the family saying, or is it as banal as it sounds?

h/t @edyong209 on Twitter, which Jerry hates, but I think is quite fun.

62 Comments

  1. Posted January 13, 2012 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    He’s clearly having fun (or at least he’s curious).

    If I remember correct there was an article in National Geographic once about animals having fun with some photos of a similar bird sliding down through the snow on his back. Multiple times! 😉

    • microraptor
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

      The New Zealand Kea (also known as the alpine parrot) is well known for playing in the snow, including sliding down snow banks on their backs. There was a NOVA episode on parrots that include footage of such behavior, it’s probably on YouTube.

  2. Griff
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    Seems fairly obviously trying to find a stable base from which to get at the doughnut (is it a doughnut)

    Anyway, Whistler is crowded enough – the last thing they need is gangs of snowboarding crows. They just don’t respect the mountains man – and they don’t pay for lift passes.

  3. Gordon
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that every time the ring stops the bird flies it back to the top, so it must be intentionally sliding down.

  4. heleen
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Hooded Crow, Corvus cornix.
    The thing does not strike me as a dougnut, quite something else …

  5. Dominic
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    Corvus cornix – it is I imagine the Russian subspecies, though is it not still disputed whether they are part of the same species as Corvus corone? Depends if you are a clumper or a splitter.

    I think it is having fun. Curiousity & novelty are useful survival traits, though with attendant risks. Amazing behaviour!

  6. BillyJoe
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    The sliding is accidental.
    The bird is obviously trying to peck at what is – or what the bird thinks is – food.
    Watch carefully: the bird pecks at the “food” every opportunity it gets.
    Anyway, I think those who say its having fun are not serious. Come on, admit it, you’re just taking the piss.

    • TheBrummell
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      Why do you assume someone with a different opinion than yours is lying?

      • BillyJoe
        Posted January 13, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t say they were lying. I said they were “taking the piss”.

        • Dominic
          Posted January 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

          It depends on your views of consciousness and intelligence in man and animal BillyJoe. If we allow that humans do things ‘for fun’ – I have avoided defining that of course! – then why should we not use the same term for animal behaviour? I think that we can assume that the beak holds something like the position of the hand in comparison with us. Pecking at the object is not only instinctive (we had discussions on instinct last year on WEIT I seem to recall, instigated by Greg or Matthew I think) but also exploratory – play is really important for learning and innovating in animals and perhaps birds as well. Really it is a matter of terminolgy. Call it ‘behaviour that resembles play’ then, & I will also call human ‘behaviour that resembles play’!

    • Xuuths
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      If it were just trying to consume it, why keep going back up to the top? Why not just continue trying to consume it where it is more stable?

      No, your explanation does not fit the observable evidence.

      • Gluon
        Posted January 13, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        As for why he might carry it back up to the top rather than eat it where it is stable, it could be that he feels the top perch is safer from predators. I have observed that my parakeet seems ill at ease unless he is as high as he can easily be. If I hold him on my finger, he will walk up my arm to my shoulder. If I hold my finger higher than my shoulder, he’ll stay there. Maybe it’s just a quirk of my bird, but it is easy to imagine that some birds might not feel safe and relaxed unless they are at the top of whatever perch they are on. After all, from the lower position you are vulnerable to a kitteh coming down from above, whereas at the top, you can see all the threats, and those threats have to come up at you.

        The possibilities are endless! We need more data.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted January 13, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        At the bottom of the slide, the “food” was buried in snow and there was still that roof angle to contend with. Also birds do prefer to perch where they feel safe from predators. For example, when a flock of birds feed, one of them perches high to watch out for predators.

  7. Posted January 13, 2012 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    Corvus corone cornix, really common in Europe, especially in last years and in big cities – they’re intelligent and adaptable (like most corvids), and so they find a lot of opportunities and advantages in the new urban environments created by man.
    Intelligent as they are, in this case it seems that the bird is frustrated: it tries to eat that thing on the top of the roof, and the falling is accidental.

    • Dominic
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Clumper! 😉

  8. Posted January 13, 2012 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    I take it nobody thought to ask the crow?

  9. IMil
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    From Russia, with explanations.

    The title says “Crow riding on a lid”. Which type of lid it is, I can only guess. Salted herring or pickled/fermented cucumbers/cabbage are most likely candidates. They often come in plastic buckets.

    The family is saying nothing of special interest. They assume (perhaps jokingly) that the crow is having fun. They comment on successful and failed descents and dispute which side of the roof the crow will use next.

    A single fun fact: at 0:40, the girl is saying (almost singing) “Early in the morning, we will ride, we will rush on the lids”. This is a paraphrase of well-known Soviet song praising life on the Far North. The girl has replaced “deer” with “lids”. You may hear the song on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vl39K3ImaEQ

    • Mike
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Crows and ravens definitely have “goofing off” behavior. At the end of this video there are a series of other corvid videos. Watch the one with two crows egging on two irritated cats.

  10. John Scarborough
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    My question is:

    Once the sliding stops and the bird can peck at the thing as much as it wants why does it fly it back to the top of the roof where it must have worked out that it’s going to slide back down thus wasting time not being able to peck at it.

    • Posted January 13, 2012 at 4:30 am | Permalink

      Dunno; maybe the top position is better to see all around and take off rapidly in case a predator or a competitor arrives. Also, the bird DOES work out that the on the top of the roof the food is going to slide down; it does it at the end of the video, when it flies away searching for another position, taking the thing with it. It just took a while and some tries for the bird to understand its errors; after all, it’s not as smart as a human. And even if it was intelligent like a human, we all know that most humans often repeat various actions in the same exact way for a long time, hoping to get a different result. To learn you need to try things.

  11. TrineBM
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Yup, Corvus Cornix. The most common crow here in Northern Europe. In Denmark it has almost driven the black crow out. I remember seeing lots more black crows when I was a kid (some 35-40 years ago.) At the barn where I ride, grey crows (as they are called here) and magpies have found a way to fetch nuts in the hedges and woods, sit on top of the roof of the riding hall, and then throw them with the beak as hard as they can, so they crack on the way down the metal roof. They then fly down and pick the cracked nuts up from the dirt below. Makes a hell of a noise, but brings nice nom out of it’s irritating shell. The horses have gotten so used to the sound that they don’t bat an ear when we’re riding inside. I got quite a shock when I heard it first time 😎

    • TrineBM
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      Oh, I forgot to answer the first question: I don’t think the crow is having fun or being frustrated. It is trying to pry food from lid. As far as I can see it is totally indifferent as to whether it is gliding or not. All focus is on the lid, and the air around it (rivals/predators). It’s just going about it’s business of being a crow – a beautiful, resourceful bird.

    • Draken
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Oh, so that’s the type I always observe here at the grass-covered roofs of DTU in Lyngby. I thought they were Corvus monedula (da. allike) or so. The Danish WP article on Corvus also states the greys and the blacks hybridise.

      I somehow don’t think this one is spilling energy on snowboarding in the cold Russian winter.

      • TrineBM
        Posted January 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Jackdaws/alliker are considerably smaller, and the grey areas kind of fade into the black parts, whereas the grey crow have distinct areas of grey and black. And they sound very differently too. Agree on your opinion on this specific crow – it’s not wasting any energy on fun.

    • Dominic
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Splitter! 😉

  12. vel
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    I think it started as being frustrration and then the bird is taking advantage of the situation. He could find a flat surface but for some reason he doesn’t.

  13. Ken Phelps
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I have a pyramid shaped plexiglass skylight in one of the operatories of my dental office. We once watched for several minutes as a crow balanced on the peak for a moment before sliding down one of the ridges to the corner of the skylight. This was repeated several times while a second crow perched on a different corner and watched. No lids or other materials were involved, just the talons sliding on the smooth plexi.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      It probably tried unsuccessfully to perch on the apex of the pyramid (highest and safest point) but gave up after annoyingly sliding off and down the side where it felt much less safe.

  14. Russy
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    It certainly looks like it’s trying to ride the lid to me. It tends to keep it’s head up when sliding, and seems to pick at the lid when stopped to make it slide again. It also seems to try different parts of the roof when the lid doesn’t start sliding, observing for motion before jumping on again.

    Not entirely surprising, as quite a few animals display play behavior, from bears to octopi. It’s a good way to learn how to manipulate the environment, something crows are shown to be quite adept at.

    • Posted January 13, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Yes, a lot of animals display play behavior, birds included. This doesn’t mean that every single behavior of the animal is playing behavior; in this case, the animal puts a lot of effort into trying to eat that thing, and clearly no effort into pushing it down the roof; the fall is accidental. Notice how it continues peaking the thing even when it has fallen, and decides to retry on the top only when it realizes that the side of the roof is too unstable. If it was playing,it would immediately grab the thing and return on the top, to repeat the fun.

      • Russy
        Posted January 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        Well, it did return immediately the first time. 🙂

        And it didn’t seem to be trying to eat it to me; birds do use their beaks for manipulating objects, and this bird seems to clue in that knocks from the beak help the lid to slide. The other thing to note is the bird stands on the lid with both feet, rather than use one foot for bracing itself. It repositions many times on top before hopping on, and it also keeps going back to the same spot after trying out different spots on the roof that were less slippery. I would say the reason why the bird starts at the peak is that it does need a semi-stable point to get on the lid before it slides away.

        As for your last point… On the second run, it stayed at the bottom for little over ten seconds. So I ask you this: Every time you do something fun, do you immediately repeat it without delay? If not, then why expect a bird to?

  15. TheBrummell
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I think the pecking at the lid (there’s a shiny middle, it’s not a ring) is not foraging.

    Somehow, the crow discovered that while standing on the lid on a sloped surface, a good hard peck will get it moving, sliding down. It wants to repeat this experience, so it sets up the same causes – stand on it on a slope (notice it doesn’t always start on snow/ice, and doesn’t get very far when on a higher-friction surface), peck hard at it until moving. The hard pecking when it stalls in the deeper snow mid-slope looks like an attempt to get moving again.

    At least, that’s one possibility that occurred to me.

    • Xuuths
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Excellent evaluation. +1

    • Posted January 13, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Again, I don’t know. In this specific case, it seems to me that the “playing interpretation” is really, really forced, judging by what we can see. This is not some kind of debate were you have to proove that animals can play – everybody here already knows that a lot of non-human animals can play, you don’t have to cling on this one video as a proof. What I see here is a Corvus corone cornix which fails to find a stable position to extract food from that whatever-the-hell-that-is, and in the end decides to leave the position and try somewhere else. This is not like saying that the bird is dumb, or that he can’t play: it’s just that in this particular moment of its life it’s probably not playing, just trying to eat something.

      • Dan L.
        Posted January 13, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        Umm, it’s certainly arguable but the play interpretation doesn’t seem forced to me. The crow spends a lot of time NOT pecking at the thing, especially when it’s standing on top of the lid at the peak of the roof. The pecking on the way down could be eating but it could also be an attempt to stabilize its body on top of the lid. I think this is actually likely because if you look closely the lid flips over several times without the crow trying to flip it back over — in other words, it spends at least one ride down pecking the side of the lid with no food on it.

        There are pretty good arguments either way. And food and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 15, 2012 at 5:09 am | Permalink

          Agreed. It also seems to me that perching birds have an innate sense of how to balance/control food items on perches (ever watch blue jays attacking acorns?). This roof probably wasn’t the only lofty perch available to this bird; that it prefers to hang out here with its booty certainly suggests play to me.

    • Doug
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Two more observations.
      When s/he’s on the rightmost face which is devoid of snow at the top, he is relatively stable and at a high point. When he doesn’t move the lid/tin/thing, he pics it up and goes back to the slidy face of the roof.

      When the thing gets stuck in the deep snow, not only does he peck at the up slope side of the object, he turns and throws snow away from the down slope side.

      I vote ‘having fun’

  16. lamacher
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Hell of an idea! Snowboard that you can nom, wile waiting for the next chairlift!

    • Griff
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      It would soon become unusable!

      • lamacher
        Posted January 13, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        Yeah, but think of the marketing possibilities – various flavors ancd colors!

  17. Griff
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Fact is people, we have NO idea what the hell is going on in the birds mind. I’m quite happy to accept that other animals have a concept of “fun”:


    I’m just not convinced this crow isn’t just trying to do something practical.

    (p.s., re vid 2: I hope those noises are coming from the rubber pool and not the elephants)

    • S A GOULD
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      I personally know this cockatoo. He dances for fun.

      • Griff
        Posted January 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        You know Snowball!! He is my hero.

        • S A GOULD
          Posted January 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

          AND he was a subject of a paper in Current Biology- Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal

  18. Notagod
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Yay corvids.

    People that don’t think other animals do things just for fun are as looney as christians! Well, maybe not quite but they are pointing in that direction. Of their observational skills, have they lost all sense? Have people never observed cats, dogs, penguins, polar bears, corvids and many others. Shall I need to link to hundreds of videos to exhaust the doubts?

    There are at least four slide tracks in the snow before we even begin to see any action. The bird is not in need of finding a protected vantage point, that bird knows the neighborhood better than any human possibly could.

    My unskilled observations are:
    – The prior lid tracks plus the slides that we see, seven or more.
    – When sliding the bird’s demeanor is casual, looking around, not necessarily focused on the object and not distressed about sliding.
    – It pecks at the uphill side of the object when on top and initially when the sliding stops.
    – It doesn’t position its body, beak and legs so that the sliding would be minimized – corvids are not stupid regarding maneuvering and positioning.
    – It takes a swipe at clearing the snow in front of the object twice.
    – Clearly it was getting better traction on the right roof top but it only went there once then returned to the left roof.
    – On a couple of occasions the object is in a position to land with the wrong side down and the bird clearly wants it the other way around.
    – Could the bird be hearing the family just a bit? That is not at all clear to me but I wonder.
    – The bird might have seen the family watching just prior to leaving, its right eye is in line with the camera for a couple of seconds.
    – I don’t think we can know for sure without further evidence and possibly environment manipulation, but I don’t think it can be seriously disputable – corvids just wana have fun, that’s all they really want. Well, noms too and sex maybe one or two others as well but, corvids just wanna have fun.

    • Marella
      Posted January 13, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

      Excellent analysis. I guess this corvid’s working day was done.

    • Dan L.
      Posted January 16, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Get ready for one of the cutest things you have ever seen:

      • FredBloggs
        Posted January 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        Nom nom nom “Lovely husky” nom nom nom

  19. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I vote for intentional fun. For me the deciding factor is the moment when the bird positions the lid at the top of the right-hand roof surface, climbs aboard, and then just waits as if expecting something to happen. On the feeding hypothesis, this moment of stability would be the ideal time to peck away like crazy at that thing; it would be the whole point of the exercise. But that’s not what we observe. What we observe is that the bird finds that position unsatisfactory and moves back to the more slippery left-hand roof surface.

  20. Cyberguy
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I have watched keas (mountain parrots) in New Zealand repeatedly slide down a snowy roof on their butts, shrieking raucously when they were sliding. Like corvids, keas a re very intelligent, and they were clearly doing it for fun. No food was involved – they were behaving exactly like kids on a slide.

    For examples of kea inquisitiveness and fun search for “kea parrot” on youtube.

  21. JD
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I have watched a common raven slide down a snowy roof repeatedly, opening its wings at the bottom and flying back to the top. It slid on its feet. When it gave this up it would repeatedly fly at a nearby loose dog and the dog would then give chase. The bird would get the dog up to speed and then fly over a small drop off which the dog would fall off of. It appeared intentional, and it appeared the bird was “having fun”. Could have been something else but I don’t believe you. 😉

  22. Marilyn Campbell
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    I work at a wildlife rehab sanctuary in Southern Oregon that houses corvids. One of the crows is housed in an enclosure near a pair of Augur Buzzards (beautiful birds native to Africa). The Augur Buzzards have a very distinctive call. One of the crows has mimicked the call of Augie, one of the Augur Buzzards. You would swear the call is not that of a crow, but his “neighbor” 2 “doors” down. They can mimic cats and pretty much any other sound they are near. The crows in my mom’s neighborhood would drop walnuts in the street, then wait until a car ran over them, cracked them open, then pick at the exposed nut in the center. From what I’ve seen, they are the smartest of all the birds. Like George Carlin once said – “stop worrying about the snails, the whales, etc… the earth will be just fine. It will shake us off like a bad case of fleas. The animals aren’t going anywhere – we are”.

  23. Slex
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    I think it is playing.

    I am not even sure that that thing is food. It looks like some kind of plastic to me. And I don’t think that a crow can’t tell the difference between something plastic and food.

  24. FrankN.Stein
    Posted January 14, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    It seemed like playing to the first time, but afer that hes seems really focused on pecking of whatever he stands on and the sliding just accidental…

  25. Posted January 14, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Looks like play to me. I dare say corvids are intelligent enough to not peck at something repeatedly which is inedible (the item is pretty clearly a ring or disk, likely plastic, not a donut). Also, intelligent enough not to be that “sphexish” in Dennett’s sense.

  26. Kharamatha
    Posted January 14, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I vote for “WHAT IS THAT FLAT THING?”

    Also, yay cornix!

  27. Janice C
    Posted January 14, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Here is a video of a bird trying to go down a snowy roof face first: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpsDWFei9Z4&feature=related

    Unless the bird is trying to take some kind of snow bath, I’m thinking that corivds just want a little fun sometimes.

  28. muhr
    Posted January 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    it looks to me that the crow slid on both sides of the lid. the first 2 were on one side and the last was on the other side. so if he was feeding then both sides had food on it.

    perhaps what started as feeding turned into play. crow finds lid with food on it. takes lid to good vantage point on roof to eat and finds himself sliding. food is eaten up and sliding is discovered to be fun.

  29. Posted January 15, 2012 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    Having fun. We once witnessed a crow who slid down our snowy barn roof once, apparently by accident, and then returned to the peak of the roof to slide down again and again. A friend who is an ornithologist tells me that corvids like to play–she was delighted but not surprised when I told her about our “sledding” crow.

  30. articulett
    Posted January 16, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    The plot thickens: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/2012/01/16/snowboarding-crows-the-plot-thickens/

    I’d say there is pretty good evidence that the crow was playing.

  31. GBJames
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    May I recommend Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich for lots of interesting insights into corvid sociality and play.

  32. Posted August 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Two or three years ago, as I was leaving home in the morning for work, I observed a cat crossing the road. Closely following it was a black-billed magpie (a species of corvid).

    The magpie kept its distance, then rushed up to the cat and pulled its tail before the cat could turn around. I saw it repeat this behavior three times as the cat walked across the road.

    The cat was clearly irritated, and the magpie appeared to be enjoying the game. The actual reason why the bird was doing this, however, eludes me. Perhaps it was just having fun taunting the cat — I don’t know.


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