Local children learn about big-brained birds

  • Michale Clough gave a talk on 'Brainy Birds' or Corvids, which includes ravens, crows and jays at the Great Falls Discovery Center. Onyx, an injured raven, that is now used for educational purposes. February 19, 2018. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

  • Michale Clough gave a talk on 'Brainy Birds' or Corvids, which includes ravens, crows and jays at the Great Falls Discovery Center. Onyx, an injured raven, that is now used for educational purposes. February 19, 2018. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

Recorder Staff
Published: 2/21/2018 8:59:44 PM

TURNERS FALLS — During their week-long school vacation, children in Turners Falls learned that “bird brain” may not be such an insult after all.

Parents, grandparents and children crowded the Great Falls Discovery Center during a sunny spring-like afternoon, excited to learn about a particularly smart group of birds: the corvids. Perhaps the promise of getting to meet Onyx, a live education raven, drew attendance.

Mike Clough, assistant director of the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum, came to the center to educate children and their parents about these brainy birds. It was part of the Discovery Center’s programming planned for school vacation week.

Clough began by telling one of Aesop’s Fables, where a crow found an urn with water in it. The water was too far down in the urn to drink, but the crow solved the problem by putting stones in the urn to make the water level rise. Around a decade ago, scientists tested crows to see if they would actually do this, and they did.

“Crows are the corvids we’re most familiar with,” Clough said.

Local corvids

There are four types of corvids in western Massachusetts: American crows, blue jays, gray jays and northern ravens. Throughout the world, there are 120 different types of corvids.

Clough gave a quick lesson on how to tell crows and ravens apart. Many people confuse the two, but Clough said anyone can tell them apart if they’re side by side. Ravens are much bigger, usually two to three pounds in weight with a 46-inch wingspan. Crows have an approximate 36-inch wingspan and typically weigh less than two pounds.

Ravens also have shaggy throat feathers and a much larger beak than crows. They tend to stay solitary or in pairs, and are usually found in remote, forested areas. Crows, however, are often found closer to human habitats like towns and farmland.

“Corvids have Swiss Army beaks,” Clough said, comparing their multipurpose beaks to the famous utility knives. “The beak on this bird is good for fish, berries, corn. … It’s like having a spork.”

Tool-using birds

Corvids have also been documented making tools and storing them for future use, an extremely uncommon behavior in animals, especially birds.

“They’re not using socket wrenches or anything like that,” Clough joked.

Typically, corvids will fashion a sharpened stick to scoop up bugs.

Before showing a video of a crow using a tool, Clough invited one of the young audience members to the front to try her hand at getting a piece of maple candy out of a foot-long tube. It took some time, but the girl was eventually able to bend the tool — a piece of wire — to snatch the candy out of the tube.

Clough showed the video of a crow doing the same thing. It bent the wire itself and was able to quickly scoop the treat out of the tube.

“There’s no way my dog would ever figure that out,” Clough said.

Big brains

Their smarts don’t end at tool use. One type of corvid, the Eurasian magpie, was the first non-mammal to recognize itself in a mirror.

Only about a dozen other animals have been shown to recognize themselves in mirrors. In addition to recognizing themselves, corvids can recognize people. Furthermore, they can remember whether a person is good or bad, and pass that information down to their young.

Also, ravens have an interesting relationship with wolves in the wild.

Ravens have a special call to let wolves know if they’ve found food. When the wolves come, the ravens will share the food with them.

They also can make more than 400 different sounds, from steel drum noises to mimicking other sounds.

Onyx the raven

Later in the presentation, Clough put on a heavy glove and opened a large wooden box. Here, the crowd caught their first glimpse of Onyx.

She was a large, shiny bird with an impressive beak and sparkling black eyes. Every second, she was turning her head to see all the sights in the room.

A few years ago, Onyx was hit by a car and her wing was broken. A family found her and took her in, and she eventually made her way to Clough. She’s been a member of the museum ever since.

“She wasn’t afraid of dogs or people,” he said. “She was perfect for education lessons.”

Clough’s background is mostly in birds of prey, but Onyx has proven to be an extra special addition.

“Everything we throw at her ... she looks at it, and she solves it,” he said. “It’s been fascinating working with this bird.”

Reach Christie Wisniewski at:


or 413-772-0261, ext. 280


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