Do crows instigate cat fights?

In lieu of Readers’ Wildlife Photos today (I have a comfortable backlog), please watch these three short videos and tell me what’s going on. In all of them, hooded crows (Corvus cornix) are associated with vicious cat fights.  And while the third video purports to show a crow “breaking up” a cat fight, that’s simply not true.

To me, it looks as if the crows are actually instigating cat fights, and I’m not sure why. The crows pull the cats’ tails, and the cats attack each other immediately after the tail-pull. It looks like displacement behavior: the cats get pissed off at having their tails pulled, and, unable to get the canny crows, attack each other.

Further, in all cases the crows watch the fight like ringside spectators at a boxing match. Is this entertainment for the crows? If so, did they actually start the fights so they could be entertained? I know that corvids are smart as hell, but can they be that smart?

This first video, showing two crows apparently working as a team, has gone viral, and I’ve seen it in many places. Notice how the crows’ presence riles up the tabby until it finally strikes the black cat.  And, at 2:53, a judicious tail peck during a lull in the fight gets it going again:

The video below is even more amazing.  The crow flies from roof to roof, inciting each cat by going for its tail, until finally the black one leaps across the roof and the vicious battle begins, with the crow continuing to egg on the cats. The entangled moggies fall to the ground and then tumble down a stairwell, with the crow looking on the whole time as the fur flies.

Crows certainly know which end of a cat is the business end, and they go for the other one!

In all three fights one of the cats is black; is that significant? At any rate, this is not a courageous crow but a nefarious one. It’s not trying to stop the feud, but seemingly promoting it! Again, during lulls in the fight (0:45 to 0:55 and 1:20 to 1:24), the crow pecks some cat tails to get the scuffle going again.

One could argue that the crow is trying to get the cats out of its territory by instigating a fight, but I’m not sure whether that would work. But one thing is for sure, hoodies—and corvids in general—are fiercely smart, with a brain/body weight ratio similar to that of cetaceans and great apes (see here and here, for instance).

All sorts of crows have been reported to show intelligence in laboratory tests, but those were all problem-solving feats, while this one looks like instigation of entertainment!

Of course, this may just be my anthropomorphizing. A post about the first video at Ars Technica suggests that tail-pulling is just a way to distract an animal to steal its food, and that this is what’s going on here. But the cats have no food, and surely the crows know that.  It remains a mystery.

h/t: Nilou

 

52 Comments

  1. Posted December 10, 2018 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Corvus cornix

    • Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I misread. Fixed, thanks!

    • Kevin
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Corvus cornix seems to be correct, though the comix version might have been better: it could come from Latin (comisto) meaning “mixed together”, mottled or blended.

      Cornix is horned or horny or possibly “crested”
      The dictionary also gives “thickened”.
      The only “crested” crow that I am aware of is the Jay. I get Jays visiting my back garden fairly often. I’m in the process of setting up a wifi camera so that I can film the wildlife from the computer there (cats, squirrels, birds and foxes).

      Maybe there was early confusion with the species, their names and classification.
      Magpie apparently came from “mag” (chattering) amd “pi” meaning pecker or possibly woodpecker.
      Pie or pied then comes to mean having black and white patches (like a magpie), hence “pied” (as in pied-wagtail) and piebald(bald meaning “streaked” or “patchy”).

  2. Diki
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Couple of years ago I could hear crows a- crowing noisily outside my flat. On going outside to investigate a cat had captured a pigeon and damaged its wing so unable to fly but still making a frantic effort to get away while said cat was toying with its prey. About a dozen or more crows were on the surrounding roofs and trees calling in more crows to see the action. They were clearly getting off on the blood sport, bit like an amphitheater for them. Is this, I wondered, why a flock of crows is called a “murder” of crows?

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Interesting but I’m not convinced this is what is happening here. Let’s take away one of the cats in this environment and see if the crows will continue after the cat. Cats get into fights such as this without any birds to get them going. It is about territory and other things. The crow is intending to accomplish something and stays after it. Meanwhile the cats mostly concentrate on each other.

    I wonder if the crow is doing this because it knows the cat is extremely distracted. I have known some cats who, if a bird came this close, would be a dead bird.

    • Frank Bath
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      This is my interpretation as well. Crows don’t want cats around. Thank you for the spectacular videos.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        I disagree with those who think the crows do this because don’t like cats. You can find videos of a crow or crows pulling the tail of a cat when no other cats are around. Here’s one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cjkYaT0Sss. You can also find videos of crows pulling dogs’ tails. Here’s one of a crow harassing a tethered dachshund https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j32gZWkBHUw

        Even better is this a video consisting of stills of crows pulling the tails of a variety of animals — several eagles as they’re eating!, a fox, a crane or similar bird. I think it’s obvious that the crows simply get off harassing the tailed animalsOne video is titled “Crows troll all kinds of animals by pulling their tails.” They are indeed the trolls of the avian world. I think they also enjoy and thrive on the danger, must be an adrenaline rush — do crows produce adrenaline?

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:45 am | Permalink

          Here’s that video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2apOL7pKFwU, and I think the large bird in question must be a heron, but I’m not sure. Call ’em crazy. Crows just like to have fun.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

          I agree. Perhaps also it’s a way for boy crows to impress girl crows – their potential as nest protectors [advertising predator distraction skillz].

  4. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    What comes to mind when I think about crows instigating fights is the exploding toad phenomenon. A whole bunch of exploded toads were found near a pond in Hamburg. They all had small incisions in their backs, just the size of a bird’s beak, and they’d all exploded so violently that their entrails were often found a metre away.

    It turned out that crows had been divebombing the toads, and in one clean motion extracting their livers, which are very tasty and desirable for crows, their equivalent of KFC. Without their livers there was nothing to hold the rest of their organs in place, and when the toads puffed themselves up in response to the crow attacks they exploded.

    Crows are clearly the ninjas of the animal kingdom.

    (I’m slightly dubious about this whole story, but it’s too good not to recount.)

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      Your account is undoubtedly true in outline although the liver isn’t extracted via the back & the ‘exploding’ is possibly unnecessary embellishment in the original 2005 story. I can imagine a bird extracting the innards & sorting through the entrails for the liver – that might look like an explosion with the entrails a good distance from the toad corpse. READ THIS FROM AUSTRALIA, 2018 regarding crows making a meal of parts of the internals of the poisonous cane toad.

      Did these Aussie crows rediscover that certain parts of poisonous toads are edible? Or is it more general – do crows experiment with poisonous food looking for edible bits – perhaps eating very small amounts at first? Or crows can detect the poison & thus easily identify safe body parts?

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        This is from the Independent*(back when they were pretty reliable too):

        “Frank Mutschmann, who examined both dead and living Hamburg specimens at his Berlin research centre, found all had identical circular incisions on their backs, small enough to be the work of a bird’s beak. Then he found something strange: their livers were missing. “There were no bite or scratch marks, so we knew the toads weren’t being attacked by a raccoon or rat, which would have also eaten the entire toad,” he said. “It was clearly the work of crows, which are clever enough to know the toad’s skin is toxic and realise the liver is the only part worth eating.

        “Only once the liver is gone does the toad realise it’s been attacked. It puffs itself up as a natural defence mechanism. But since it doesn’t have a diaphragm or ribs, without the liver there is nothing to hold the rest of its organs in. The lungs stretch out of all proportion and rip; the rest of the organs simply expel themselves.”

        (re. your point, I don’t see how the crows could extract the liver through any area other than the back, unless they went to the trouble of flipping them over first – which would admittedly make the whole story even cooler.)

        *https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/stone-the-crows-exploding-toad-case-solved-5345207.html

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          Read my link Saul where flipping over the toad is mentioned. The liver is at the front & on the left [from the toad POV] under the left foreleg – equivalent to where your left nipple is [or rather just below there]. The ribs on a toad are very short & don’t wrap around to the front. A crow would go in from the side or the front – certainly not the back. On cane toads at least the poison glands secrete from the the back where our shoulder blades are.

          The Aussie crows go in via the front as explained by this gentlemen [with corpse evidence]:

          • rickflick
            Posted December 10, 2018 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

            Now that’s a smart bird!

          • Saul Sorrell-Till
            Posted December 10, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

            I hadn’t read your original link so thanks for that Michael. It’s very interesting. And they do flip them over!

            On the other hand it’s different from the one about toads ‘exploding’ after their livers are snatched out by divebombing crows. It sounds more and more like bollocks. It’s too cool a story, and too much like a seventies martial arts movie, one-inch-punch kind of thing. Something with David Carradine in it.

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted December 10, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

              yeah – I looked up crows being particularly interested in liver & not bothering with other offal & found nowt.

      • Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        Thanks for that one. I regularly hang out with ornithologists and thought I had heard all the “you’ll never believe this about corvids” stories. Shows me the perils of hubris.

  5. Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    As I understand it, crows (and many other birds) dislike cats, recognizing that they are predators that pose a threat to them. They will harass them and try to drive them away. The fact that it leads to a fight between the cats in these videos may be incidental. Some birds will similarly chase and harass predators such as hawks or snakes.

    • Caldwell
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      That’s my theory – and the crows get a good chance to harass the cats when the cats are distracted.

    • Matt Foley
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      If you watch enough cat fight videos you’ll notice that nothing distracts them. I think the cats in the first video were gonna throw down no matter what, crows or no crows.

      • Posted December 10, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Yes, I agree. I see nothing that seems like successful instigation to me, though who knows what the crows are thinking. If asked, the cats would certainly tell us, “Cats’ business is cats’ business!”

  6. Jan Looman
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I remember years ago listening to the CBC radio popular science show Quirks and Quarks. Somebody researching crow intelligence was being interviewed and described an episode where a crow dropped a piece of bread (or something) between two gulls. Both of the gulls went for the bread and started fighting over it. The crow then retrieved the bread for itself and sat back and watched the fight.

    So definitely, they instigate fights for their own amusement.

  7. Merilee
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    What a bunch of busybodies/shit-disturbers those Corvus are. Fascinating!

  8. DrBrydon
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I wonder if when the crow riles up the cat A, cat B isn’t reacting to the sounds and posture of cat A, and then, of course, that also further riles up cat A. They are then reacting to what they would otherwise see as threatening behavior from the other cat?

    • Luis Servin
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Something that’s very clear in all three videos is that the crows go after only one of the cats. In the first video it almost appears that they are working in concert with the black cat, which appears to be larger. There is definitely some strategy and purpose on the part of the crows.

  9. Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    The crows obviously own one of the cats and is training it for cat fights in which they stand to earn a lot of money (food) from the bets made by the crow spectators. 😉

    Being highly intelligent, crows also must have a sense of humour and a nasty streak…

  10. Ray Little
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Instigating fights between predators – could that be a survival tactic? If 2 predators are fighting each other, they’re not chasing you. Do crows start fights among squirrels (non-predators)? Starting fights between gulls might be a form of indirect aggression against competitors.

  11. Mark Reaume
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Crows have a well developed theory of cats.

  12. another fred
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    So, when we see people who just like to cause trouble, is that behavior that has been conserved since the LCA (last common ancestor) of humans and birds, or convergent evolution?

    /

  13. mikeyc
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Sometimes something is exactly what it appears to be – I think much of that was just play.

  14. rickflick
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    One video claim the crows are trying to prevent a fight. Others interpret this as instigation. One conclusion: we humans project our own feelings.

    When I was a kid, our cat would get upset when my brother and I would play fight on the living room carpet. The cat would attack whoever was on top. I assumed she was trying to support the underdog.

  15. Marion
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    What kind of person films animals hurting each other rather than breaking up the fight? That’s sadistic.

    • Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      “What kind of person films…”? A wildlife documentary maker

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      What got me was that near the end of the first video were a couple d*g walkers that came right by, barely glancing at the kerfuffle.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted December 10, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        In case you don’t know, you got an honourable, many legged mention HERE Mark.

        • Merilee
          Posted December 10, 2018 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

          Now you’re making me feel guilty for the one I killed in the bathtub yesterday.

  16. lkr
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    A dynasty of scrub jays own our back yard. For fifteen years they persecuted our Maine coon Lionel, always going for his glorious tail.

    Our current cat Sierra is a Manxie. She’s worked out a deal with the jays. She won’t stalk them, and they won’t pluck her [almost nonexistent] tail. Much quieter during fledging season.

  17. Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    A pair of magpies in my garden used to taunt my cat to follow them along a branch that got thinner and thinner and then try to get the cat to lunge in such a way that the corvid could flap away and the cat would be left on a branch that wouldnt support its weight.
    My cat never quite got caught this way, but a neighbours one did and had quite a fall (described to me later)
    Corvids can certainly do cause and effect problem solving (using trucks to break brazil nuts, making simple hooks etc) so I dont find it too anthropomphic to think of them getting the British public to fight and then profit from the fall in the pound….sorry, distracted there…getting cats to fight and profiting from it.

  18. Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I think animals of a certain intelligence level enjoy tormenting their enemies and displaying their own bravery and prowess. I see it with crows and squirrels. The cats are their natural enemies so an appropriate target. The crows and squirrels know (or assume) they can get away if the cat chooses to attack. Perhaps they do this during a cat fight because it is a bit safer as the cat is otherwise occupied.

    There’s also the possibility the crow has a bet on the cat fight and is trying to urge on his champion or, perhaps, distract the other cat so his champion can gain advantage.

    I love the soundtrack on the first one.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      “I think animals of a certain intelligence level enjoy tormenting their enemies and displaying their own bravery and prowess.”

      …speaking of which: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxd4FCCznLI

      • Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        Yes, I’ve seen that before. An excellent example. It seems very much like what the crows and squirrels do, though perhaps even more daring and dangerous.

    • Posted December 10, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      I stayed in a Huaorani village in the Amazon, and they had a pet spider monkey that was kept tied up. They also had a vicious White-lipped Peccary in a pen. I asked why they kept their monkey tied up. They told me it used to run free in the village, but it got into the habit of catching the village chickens and throwing them into the peccary pen, where the peccary tore the chickens apart and devoured them. This carnage seemed to be endlessly entertaining to the spider monkey. Note that the monkey could easily have eaten the chickens, but preferred to sacrifice valuable food in favor of entertainment.

      • Posted December 10, 2018 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        Great story! If only they could have told the spider monkey that he/she was imprisoned for chicken murder. I’m only half joking. Seems like they could have gotten the point across somehow, though at the expense of some chickens. Perhaps that would be too high a price to pay.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted December 10, 2018 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        Bloody hell. And there are people who doubt that we share a common ancestor…

  19. Mark R.
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    The second cat fight was epic. It was like a cartoon.

    I can’t decide if it’s for territorial reasons (get this dangerous animal away from me) or entertainment. Maybe it started as territorial then became entertainment after they noticed the cats’ ensuing chaos.

  20. Charles Minus
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    In his book based on his lifelong study of Ravens, Mind of the Raven, Bernard Heinrich describes corvids doing this tail pulling stunt on wolves and coyotes. He suggests that the birds do this so they can study the reaction time of the animals for future reference when they are scavenging on the prey of the predators.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      Very clever!

  21. chascpeterson
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Corvids are good evidence for the ‘social complexity’ hypothesis for the evolution of intelligence. Any readers with interest and some time can read the Peyton-Place details of one well-studied crow population at caroleecaffrey.com. There is also some evidence there for a sense of humor or entertainment (see the last paragraph of:
    ​Caffrey, C. 2001. Goal-directed use of objects by American Crows. Wilson Bulletin 113: 114-115.)

  22. Posted December 10, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Crows annoy cat as a dangerous predator. The cat responds with a threat posture. Another nearby cat sees the threat posture and doesn’t link it to the crows, thinks the first cat is about to attack – so it attacks first.

    caw-meow

    rz

  23. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    In the first video it is the black cat that is the aggressor.

    In all three videos it seems to me to be cat territory/rank competition, with the corvids just taking opportunity and mostly distracting, which a cat may or may not itself take opportunity of. Perhaps the corvids do it for the reason Ars gives, they may be used to – or even be training for – stealing food.

  24. CAS
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Corvids show many intelligent behaviors involving play that suggest they might do this for fun.

  25. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 11, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I know that corvids are smart as hell, but can they be that smart?

    [Whistles theme from Twilight Zone]

    Is it possible to whistle in black and white?


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