Can crows count?

To: "'John Harris'" <>
Subject: Can crows count?
From: "Philip Veerman" <>
Date: Mon, 16 Sep 2013 16:24:03 +1000
Thanks. In Mudgee it would still most likely be the Australian Raven. My mentioning Canberra was to give a local context, not really a comment on your story. Also the story is likely decades old. It may well be even before the experts (mainly Rowley) managed to work out that there is a difference there and there are 5 species of this group in Aus.
The 5 species are all very similar in appearance, hard to tell apart. It took some careful study (not so long ago) to work out the relationships. The use of "crow" in the general sense is reasonable.
-----Original Message-----
From: John Harris [
Sent: Monday, 16 September 2013 4:02 PM
To: Philip Veerman
Cc: <>
Subject: Re: [canberrabirds] Can crows count?

Thanks Philip,
You may well be right. I don't know how much time elapsed on the first few attempts!
The story happened in Mudgee, not Canberra,. I was using the word 'crow' in a general sense. I do not know what species it actually was. Farmers may well have believed that all ravens, and crow-like birds, even currawongs I believe, were capable of maiming lambs. No doubt many birds were killed on false rumour rather than real evidence.
John Harris
Rev Dr John Harris,
36 Kangaroo Close,
Nicholls, ACT 2913
P: 61-(0)2-62418472

On 16/09/2013, at 3:51 PM, Philip Veerman <>

Well I suspect they can count at least a bit. The question is about whether they can remember numbers. It is well known about people entering a hide and then people leaving that birds' ability to do subtraction exists but is limited. So the method is used for many birds. However taking this story on face value, there is a far easier explanation, that has nothing to do with numbers or gender or other attributes of people entering this hide. This relates to: Everybody waited a long time but at last the crow decided it was safe because the bird, even if it could count and even if it could remember numbers, is going to respond to the passage of time. Either it forgets the number, or decides it has not seen a problem for a sufficient time and that it decides things are OK. Any thing that does not respond to the passage of time is never going to do anything.
Similar thing, if you disturb an Echidna, it will dig itself into the ground. If you stay there and don't bother it any more, after a few minutes it will look out again then move along. The period of time that they will stay hunkered down is fairly consistent.
To be repetitive, assuming the below story is Australian, and given the solitary habits mentioned, it was probably Australian Ravens (the common species in Canberra), not Crows (in the narrow sense). Crows have never been recorded in Canberra and do not normally harm lambs (HANZAB mentions "sometimes attack, weak, starving or stillborn lambs"). I assume they would eat placentas also.
-----Original Message-----
From: John Harris []
Sent: Monday, 16 September 2013 3:00 PM
Subject: [canberrabirds] Can crows count?

To all the crow enthusiasts,
My grandfather insisted that crows could count to 5.
There was a particularly wily old crow which perched all day in a tall gumtree near his lambing paddock, causing havoc with the newborn lambs.  It knew what traps were, perched on them at first but after long investigation never entered them.
It knew also what guns were and would not let anyone with a gun anywhere within range. Grandfather built a small hide in the lambing paddock and took his gun with him into it. The crow stayed at a distance. So Grandfather got my dad to walk with him to the hide and then walk away leaving him there. The crow stayed at a distance, eying them but partly concealed on a high branch of the gumtree on the far side of the paddock. 
Not to be outwitted, Grandfather got my uncle as well and the three of them walked to the hide and then two left, leaving Grandfather there with the gun. The crow remained concealed, just occasionally peeping around the branch of the tree. So Grandfather sent Dad on his horse to get the next-door neighbour. He came and the the four of them walked to the hide. When the three departed the crow remained stubbornly in the tree. Dad wanted to get Grandma but Grandfather reckoned the crow could tell a woman from a man. So the next-door neighbour got his labourer. 
The five of them walked to the hide, squeezed in, waited a minute, and then the four of them left Grandfather there. Everybody waited a long time but at last the crow decided it was safe and flew down to the fence near the new-born lambs. And there Grandfather shot it. He wore five of its tail feathers in his hat for the rest of his life.
So there you have it, crows can count to 5…or wait a minute, is that actually only 4…? 

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