Crows pulling tails

In my dotage I’ve decided to cut back on work on Saturday, and I’m sure readers will forgive me if I take a weekly break (that means lighter posting, not no posting). So let’s end Professor Ceiling Cat’s writing day with a simple series of photographs of “Tail pulling” given on The Corvid Blog.

Corvids are species in the family Corvidae, and include crows, ravens, rooks, and jackdaws, magpies, jays, and sundry other species (120 species total). They’re known for their intelligence, and I’ve posted about them fairly often (see here). As Wikipedia notes,

Corvids display remarkable intelligence for animals of their size and are among the most intelligent birds thus far studied.  Specifically, members of the family have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests (European magpies) and tool-making ability (crows, rooks), skills which until recently were thought to be possessed only by 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 in humans.

You can see how smart they are by clicking on the last link above. But they’re mischievous, too! Here are corvids pulling tails, including each other’s:


A quote from the Blog’s piece:

This behavior is so common it’s noted in many scientific papers, with a nice summary from Lawrence Kilham in his 1989 book The American Crow and the Common Raven, page 34-35:

Tail pulling is a habit common to a number of corvids (Goodwin 1976). The crow that robbed the otter by pulling its tail could have done so by happenstance or as a deliberate piece of strategy.  It is hard to know.  The crows had pulled the otters’ tails many times before, to no seeming purpose except an urge, shared by Black-Billed Magpies (Lorenz 1970) and Common Ravens, to provoke animals larger than themselves, whether there is any immediate advantage to doing so or not.  Bent (1946) reported three Common Ravens robbing a dog of a bone, one bird pulling the dog’s tail while others stood by its head.  It is conceivable that crows, like ravens, are capable after trial and error of seizing upon the right movement for pulling a tail to advantage.  Another use of tail pulling can be to get a larger bird or mammal to move from a carcass, as I describe later for Common Ravens contending with Turkey Vultures and as Hewson (1981) did for Hooded Crows contending with a Buzzard.  Goodwin (1976) described crows and magpies pulling the tails of mobbing predators. 

The behavior appears to be innate, for one of my hand-raised crows pulled a sheep’s tail and a hand-raised raven a cat’s tail when they were less than three months of age.

This is WRONG!:

But this is RIGHT; a d*g gets the pull:

h/t: Charleen

32 Comments

  1. glen1davidson
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    What’s interesting to me is that corvids–smarter birds–are similar to primates–smarter mammals–in being mischievous and liking to pester and annoy other animals. Parrots do it, too, although perhaps not as much as the corvids do. We’re amused by it, unsurprisingly.

    It’s an intelligent animal’s way of gaining an advantage over its competitors.

    Glen Davidson

    • Posted February 17, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      I’m surprised that parrots aren’t up there with corvids in intelligence.

      • glen1davidson
        Posted February 17, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        Aren’t they?

        They are different in intelligence, but the parrots are certainly quite bright. At least in that link, it appears that the corvids were more likely to think about a task before trying, while the parrots, keas, were quicker to attack a problem and to try to work around problems as they arose.

        Glen Davidson

      • nicky
        Posted February 17, 2018 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        I tend to agree with Glen here. Parrots always struck me as excessively clever. They are known for ‘parroting’ , but there are many situations where it would be ‘obscene’ to contend they do not know what they are talking about. And they are mischievous too.

  2. Tom Czarny
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I love how when the dog looks back to see what’s going on the crow nonchalantly feigns disinterest before going in for the kill.

    • klf
      Posted February 18, 2018 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for calling that out, hadn’t noticed at first. What a hoot! 😏

  3. Barry Lyons
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget this classic video (Jerry, I think you posted this a long time ago): an epic cat fight, with crows! Love the music editing (don’t know what music is though):

    • S Forbes 2011
      Posted February 17, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      I once watched two northwestern crows purloin a piece of bread from a herring gull. We were feeding bread scraps to the gull and the crows showed up. One stood in front of the gull, the other behind. The crow behind yanked on the gull’s tail which caused it to drop the bread. The crow in front grabbed the bread and then both crows flew a short distance and shared the spoils. I stood in awe of the evil genius of the crows.

      Scott Forbes

    • Jacques Hausser
      Posted February 17, 2018 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      Ha! The crows were obviously paid by the black cat, but of course he denied any collusion. It reminds me of something…

    • rickflick
      Posted February 17, 2018 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

      Music is in the credits:

      Alan Silvestri
      Predator OST, Predator II OST

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted February 17, 2018 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

      This is thrilling footage, not to mention hilarious. Never had so much fun watching a fight.

  4. Frank Bath
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I once watched spellbound as two European magpies on a lawn protected their two young from a marauding cat. By ceaselessly hopping over the cat, endlessly confusing and teasing it, the adults kept their young safe. After many minutes of this ‘game’, as if bored, they flew at the cat and chased it up a tree, where it stayed.

  5. S Forbes 2011
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I once watched two northwestern crows purloin a piece of bread from a herring gull. We were feeding bread scraps to the gull and the crows showed up. One stood in front of the gull, the other behind. The crow behind yanked on the gull’s tail which caused it to drop the bread. The crow in front grabbed the bread and then both crows flew a short distance and shared the spoils. I stood in awe of the evil genius of the crows.

    Scott Forbes

  6. Posted February 17, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t know dogs can jump like frogs.

  7. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Video: Two magpies [ Pica pica ] versus female sparrowhawk with pigeon meal. I see magpies harassing pigeons [& sometimes gulls] every day outside my window including when there’s no nest to protect. Very entertaining – though I lot of people around my way are anti-magpie for some reason, perhaps superstition.

  8. Posted February 17, 2018 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I once watched six crows on a power line as cheering section for a seventh as it played with a small hawk in the air. The hawk was quite furious whistling away. The hawk was faster than the crow but less nimble. Whenever it got close the crow would tumble or do a wheelie and the crows on the wire would jump up and down and caw. This went on for quite a few minutes until the hawk gave up went back into the trees and the crow went back onto the wire.

    • Posted February 17, 2018 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      Q: Why did the crows sit on the telephone wire?

      A: They wanted to make a long-distance caw.

      I’ll be here all week, folks.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted February 18, 2018 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        I recall a cartoon in (I think) Private Eye with two pigeons perched together and one saying “I’m planning a coo”.

        It made me laugh, anyway!

      • Posted February 18, 2018 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

        LOL!
        That same gang of crows would divebomb a group of grouse scratching around in the underbrush until the grouse gave up and fluttered back under the shelter of the trees. At the same time there were a couple of young crows hatched that year, distinguishable by the white patches on the plumage, and if they took off and looked like they were heading towards the cliff, a hundred foot dropwith wild waves below the adults would go after them and corral them back inland.

  9. mfdempsey1946
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I once observed a crow trying and failing to crack the shell of a walnut that had fallen from a roadside tree in urban Los Angeles.

    So the crow dropped the walnut shell onto the middle of the road.

    Soon a car drove over it, crushing the shell, from which the crow then hopped over to extract the meaty bits.

    I don’t know how unusual such crow ingenuity is — only that I had never seen it before and haven’t since.

  10. Mark R.
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    In Alaska, crows and bald eagles are ubiquitous. That first photo is a common site up there. The bald eagle eating a fish carcass with a crow or group of crows harassing and trying to get the noms. I never witnessed it, but a local said sometimes an eagle will get pissed off and attack a harassing crow, sometimes killing it. Not surprising I suppose.

  11. loren russell
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    OUr resident corvids (scrub jays) were merciless in harassing our late lamented Maine Coon Lionel. His glorious plume of a tail was always at risk.

    When Lionel passed on, we got our current goddess Sierra. She’s a Manx, and lacking a tail, seems to be immune to the jays. Helps that she never stalks the fledgings, I suppose.

  12. eric
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I think we should follow Occam’s Razor here; the simplest explanation for this behavior is that crows are jerks.
    🙂

    • rickflick
      Posted February 17, 2018 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      Sssshhh… not too loudly. Especially if you sport a tail.

    • somer
      Posted February 17, 2018 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      I don’t care if crows are intelligent – I hate them!

  13. Gabrielle
    Posted February 17, 2018 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Here in the Wash DC area, there are now large flocks of crows, that hang out in the trees near my home. One afternoon they started making a loud fuss. As I looked out the window, I saw three crows attacking a bird of prey, mainly by dive bombing it from above and pecking at its wings. The bird of prey sauntered off after a minute or so. I couldn’t tell what type it was.
    The crows triumphantly repaired to their favorite trees after this fight.

  14. Posted February 17, 2018 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    I once observed my chicken jump up and pull a tail feather out of a low perching barbary dove. The chicken then ate the feather.

  15. Posted February 18, 2018 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    Joke’s on them. We don’t have tails.

  16. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted February 18, 2018 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Years ago I worked at a biological research station in the Camargue, France. A study that was (and still is) running there was on the population biology of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) and as part of this there was an observation hide close to the island in the salinas where the flamingos nested. From this hide two interesting predatory behaviours were observed that developed amongst the yellow-legged herring gulls (Larus cachinnans) that frequented the colony. In one the gull would approach an incubating flamingo from behind and start pecking at its tibio-tarsal joint. A few pecks would be enough to force the flamingo to stand up whereupon the gull would pounce on the egg and remove it. In the second technique the gull would approach from the front of the sitting flamingo which would lower its neck and wave its head from side to side at the gull. The gull would then grab the flamingo’s bill in its own and start to walk backwards, in the process levering the flamingo up onto its feet. Once this was achieved the gull was again able to swoop in on the egg and remove it before the flamingo could do anything to stop it.

  17. Melanie Sexton
    Posted February 18, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I am fascinated by these intelligent and beautiful creatures… Thanks for the further education of them..

  18. Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    My (now departed) Inuk friend Raven used to remind people that corvids are *not nice animals*, and if you tick her off you’d learn from her metaphorical example. I think *she* would pull a tail to prove a point!


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