Many years ago, I witnessed an unusual incident while in my front yard. It was during the summer and I happened to hear a raven croaking. Looking up, I saw two ravens flying directly to one of the tall white pine trees surrounding the house. They were being pursued by several crows, who were vocalizing anxiously. The ravens flew into the treetop with the crows right behind. The branches hid what was going on but I could hear a terrible struggle break out with the sound of wings flapping, the ravens croaking and the crows beginning to shriek at the top of their voices. I thought possibly a nest was under attack. The screaming of the crows attracted every crow within hearing distance and it wasn’t long before I had fifty or more crows circling around all cawing hysterically. Finally the ravens departed, flying back the way they had come. The crows continued circling and screaming for nearly three quarters of an hour afterwards before they finally began settling down.
I inspected the base of the tree to see if anything had fallen but there was nothing to indicate if nestlings had been killed or even if there was a nest at all. All in all, the incident was quite mystifying. The most likely explanation was that the ravens were destroying a crow’s nest. But the motivation behind it was unknown. It’s not a good idea to attribute human purposes to something that isn’t human as this can cause us to misinterpret what we are seeing. Still, it was hard not suspecting some sort of pay-back was involved.
Crows and ravens are noted for their exceptional intelligence, problem solving abilities, and surprisingly complex social behavior. So the question arises, are they capable of vengeance as we understand it?
Revenge, at least in human terms, is usually defined as a form of primitive justice, an effort to right a perceived wrong by the person taking revenge. This usually occurs when ordinary justice is seen as having failed the injured party and they take it upon themselves to get satisfaction. It requires a sense of self (seeing oneself has having been offended) as well as the ability to plan and carry out the act of revenge (restoring a sense of balance).
Can animals plan ahead? Studies of chimpanzees seem to suggest that the capability to visualize a future event and make plans based on that visualization is shared with our closest relative. But what about birds? Studies of scrub jays as well as other birds seem to indicate that they are capable of planning as well. Tests involved determining the bird’s ability to abstract a general rule when solving a certain task and then transfer that learned rule to new tasks. When faced with a novel situation, the birds could adapt previous experience to apply to the new problem. Corvids seem especially good at this as opposed to such birds as pigeons who tend to be rote learners.
But do crows and ravens have a sense of justice as humans do? To perceive injustice and attempt to right it is something we humans are hardwired for as the desire to take revenge appears universal among humans no matter what culture or time they belong to. Even small children will complain when they experience what they regard as injustice (“It’s not fair!). I can still recall an incident that occurred when I was perhaps four or five years old. I was following my mother through a field and we stepped over a large rock. She crossed over without incident, but when I stepped over the rock, an irate wasp appeared and stung me on the knee. My main reaction was not anguish over the pain of the sting but bewilderment over the perceived injustice of having been stung while my mother had crossed the rock unscathed. Why couldn’t I have crossed the rock without incident? Though it’s been well over half a century since that happened, my outrage over the unfairness of it is still very vivid to me.
We humans are complex creatures with equally complex societies. Our sense of justice is likely an outgrowth of our social structures, a way to ensure that interpersonal conflicts do not escalate out of control and disrupt the group. Without a way to ‘balance the scales’, what often occurs is a chaotic endless cycle of revenge and pay-back (much like we see in the Middle East). Crows and ravens have much simpler social lives, crows living in extended family groups while ravens are less gregarious, living as pairs raising their young. But the need to maintain order between and within groups is still there though likely in a more rudimentary form.
So was what I saw all those years ago an example of corvid revenge? Or something else entirely? Our inability to answer this question reveals how much we still need to overcome our arrogant assumption that only we humans are capable of thinking and planning and all the other wonderful things we blithely believe only we can do. That we are not particularly special in that regard can be humbling but it can also open our eyes to what we have in common with our fellow earthlings.
“People must have renounced, it seems to me, all natural intelligence to dare to advance that animals are but animated machines.... It appears to me, besides, that such people can never have observed with attention the character of animals, not to have distinguished among them the different voices of need, of suffering, of joy, of pain, of love, of anger, and of all their affections. It would be very strange that they should express so well what they could not feel.” Voltaire