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Case Number 20789: Small Claims Court

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A Murder Of Crows

PBS // 2010 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // February 27th, 2011

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All Rise...

Much like the crow, Judge Bryan Byun is a clever trickster. And enjoys carrion.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of A Murder Of Crows (published August 12th, 1999) and A Murder Of Crows (Blu-Ray) (published February 12th, 2011) are also available.

The Charge

Birds with an Attitude.

The Case

One of the cherished truths we humans—in the Western world, anyway—cling to most tenaciously is the notion that we are unique among the animals because of our big, complicated brains. We believe we're the only animals on Earth that use language, possess self-awareness, feel emotions like love, or use sophisticated problem-solving skills.

In recent years, though, this belief has been seriously tested by example after example of animals possessing skills and behaviors we believed were unique to humans: complex use of tools, humanlike social interactions, and such "human" traits as humor and deception. And we are seeing these traits not just in dolphins and dogs, but animals like birds, livestock, and even the octopus, that are rarely credited with any significant degree of intelligence or consciousness.

PBS's A Murder of Crows, an episode of its Nature series, brings us closer to one example of these surprisingly brainy animals: the common crow. Crows don't get much respect in many human socieities—in the United States, they're considered pests more often than not, and freely hunted to prevent them from eating crop seed and spreading disease. The title of this show is in fact a bit of a double entendre, referring both to the term for a flock of crows, and to the fact that these incredibly smart, sociable animals are killed by the millions all over the world.

Many of us have anecdotes about intelligent crows—I had one that perched on my backyard fence every day, watching me tend my garden—but recently, crows have become the subject of serious scientific research, and the observations may be surprising even to crow admirers. Among the fascinating behaviors shown in the documentary:

• Crows have language: not only do they speak to each other using over 250 distinctive sounds, but they use dialects…a loud voice for speaking to the flock, and a quieter "indoor voice" for communicating within the family.

• Crows remember faces: one experiment had researchers capturing crows while wearing masks, and for up to two years afterwards the crows would not only recognize the face on the mask, but warn others in their flock whenever the mask was spotted.

• Crows use tools: in some of the most interesting footage on the program, we see crows opening hard-shelled nuts by dropping them onto busy streets, waiting for a car to run over them, and swooping in to collect the nuts.

I've always known that crows were smart animals, but even I was amazed by an experiment that had a crow using tools to retrieve a morsel of food. Not only did the crow know how to manipulate a twig to reach the food, but it was able to figure out how to use one tool to get another tool it could use to get the food, even adapting the first tool to make it more effective—something pretty much unheard of in the non-human animal kingdom.

PBS presents A Murder of Crows on a barebones, feature-only DVD. Video is generally sharp and vivid, but varies depending on the source of the location footage. Audio is an English-only surround track; it's clear, if not especially lively.

While A Murder of Crows could have benefited from more supplementary material (perhaps additional footage of the researchers' experiments) it's a must-see for any animal lover, and entertaining enough to keep the interest of anyone curious about these unfairly maligned creatures. If nothing else, it might cause you to think twice the next time you're tempted to shoo away a crow…you may well end up with a lifelong foe.

The Verdict

The court finds A Murder of Crows not guilty. Or would, if it hadn't already picked the lock on its cage with a paper clip, flown out the window, and pooped on the windshield of the court's car.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Science and Nature
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


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