Filmmaker explores the social world of crows

As she sat out on her deck two years ago, Susan Fleming watched a tiny bird fledge out of the tree and fall at her feet. Little did she know, this fledgling with bright blue eyes would be the catalyst for her latest documentary, Murder of Crows.

Fleming, a documentary filmmaker now living in Claremont, northeast of Toronto, soon began researching crows and found out some fascinating facts. Initially her intent was to document the first year of a crow’s life. However, as filming began, she focused instead on the intelligence of crows.

“You can’t make anything happen in nature films. You have to be witness to what happens without forcing things, so it is very much a shifting playing field,” Fleming said.

Fleming’s documentary illustrates a crow’s ability to learn, remember and recognize a specific human face and then to transmit that information to other crows. They watch and learn from humans and adapt to their surrounding environment accordingly.

Humans evaluate new environments and situations by analyzing new and old information; then they make decisions based on that analysis. For the novice crowwatcher, it may be surprising to hear, that crows behave very similarly.

“Part of their social network is that they share information and tell all the other crows that you’re a bad guy or you’re a good guy and that information travels far and wide. I think that is unbelievable; that was the thing that got me,” Fleming said.

Fleming hopes her film changes the negative perception that crows are just dirty, pesky birds.

“In Chatham (Ont.) there were shooting competitions to see who could kill the most crows. Murdering them was long thought to be an acceptable thing and I hope that this film will change that,” Fleming said. “I just want to offer them in a more favourable light.”

Fleming suggested humans tend to look down on other animal species based on an assumption of relative intelligence levels. The film shows this is only an assumption and not necessarily a fact.

“We’re not the only ones who have this laundry hamper of abilities; many animals have them, even ones who you would not give a second look to,” Fleming said.

“We always think we’re the only ones who can do this or that, but the research is just starting to look into what other creatures can do and we should be humbled by what we find.”

Fleming pointed to the research done into a crow’s brain and the neurosurgeon’s view of the bird’s brain.

“There are a lot of ramifications from this kind of research that will really shock and amaze people,” she said. “It’s going to change the world we know and the world we live in. Who thought a crow could do that?”

The documentary originally aired on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009 on CBC Tv’s The Nature of Things.

One comment:

  1. Monique,Thank you for this really wonderfully written story. We got a lot of press but this by far is one of my favourite pieces. You are a gifted writer and I am grateful you turned your lens on my film.

    Much thanks,


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