Crows are pests.
They're the reason your garbage is scattered all over the lawn when the can lid falls off.
They devour crops and are the indirect cause of many annoying hours of bird cannons in rural areas.
Their raucous caws will wake you up early on a Saturday. They'll poop on your car. In Vancouver, they vigorously protect their nests against any perceived threat, including random Vancouverites innocently walking under trees.
So who feels sad when a crow gets shot as vermin or run over by a car? No one.
Would you feel bad if it was a chimpanzee, though? How about if people were going out willy-nilly shooting dolphins? Not so nice to kill Flipper, is it?
The problem is, we're learning that crows-common-as-dirt crows-might be among the smartest animals on the planet.
Read almost any older textbook about animal intelligence, and it will tell you that birds are just not as smart as mammals. Tiny brains.
They don't even have a neocortex, for crying out loud!
Which does not help explain how some crows can apparently count to small numbers. Or how their cousins, the magpies, can recognize themselves in a mirror-something only humans, great apes, elephants, and a few species of dolphins have managed so far.
Then there's the New Caledonian crow, which seems to be the Rhodes scholar of the family tree. These crows from the South Pacific use tools in the wild, fashioning them out of sticks and bits of grass, to reach inaccessible food. In captivity, one crow has repeatedly bent straight wires to make better hooks for grabbing food-without training.
Crows have also shown the ability to think ahead. Given a tool too short to reach a food source, but long enough to reach a longer tool, they've solved the riddle on multiple occasions.
Other animals that can do that? Humans. Apes. That's about it.
Your family dog may be friendly, and your cat may be- not as mean as most cats, but neither of them is as smart as a crow.
So here's my question: what do we owe to animals that are smart, but not as smart as us?
Let's be clear, crows are not going to be writing sonnets or solving complex math equations any time soon.
But neither will chimps or gorillas. Most people want those animals treated humanely, at least in part because of their ability to think and reason more like we do than, say, the common Norwegian rat.
I like my tuna dolphin-safe, and I'd prefer if any scientific testing on apes is done in as humane a manner as possible. But crows?
No one is making soft-focus nature documentaries about cute baby crows growing up in the jungles of the Congo. Crow chicks look like bags of wrinkled skin dotted with dirty feathers. Crows do not have permanent smiles like bottlenose dolphins. They don't do tricks at SeaWorld unless you count dive-bombing runs to snatch hot dogs out of the hands of tourists.
Unlike chimps and dolphins, crows are not now, and likely never will be, in danger of extinction.
I once saw a flock (or murder) of crows mobbing an owl, chasing it from tree to tree in broad daylight.
Whether we owe crows special treatment because of their intelligence, they may not need it.
Crows are tough, they're omnivorous, and they've survived and thrived in big human cities for hundreds of years.
Maybe that's why we don't like crows as much as we should. They're loud, dirty, aggressive, and smart.
They're us, with feathers.