Not so bird-brained after all! Research shows that crows can count ‘out loud’ just like humans

  • Crows can determine the number of vocalizations they produce by ‘counting’ to 4
  • The ability to count out loud requires an understanding of numerical quantities

They are already known as one of the smartest animals in the world.

Now experts have discovered that crows can even count out loud – in a similar way to human toddlers.

In experiments, researchers have found that the birds can control the number of vocalizations they produce, by ‘counting’ to four in response to signals.

The ability to count aloud and recite “one, two, three…” requires an understanding of numerical quantities and purposeful vocal control.

People use speech to count and convey quantities symbolically, a complex skill developed in childhood.

They are already known as one of the smartest animals in the world. Now experts have discovered that crows can even count out loud – in a similar way to human toddlers

Before toddlers master symbolic counting, in which specific words relate to specific quantities, they will often produce a number of speech sounds that correspond to the quantities of objects they see.

Researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany trained three crows to produce one to four vocalizations in response to both visual and auditory cues.

On each trial, crows were required to produce a certain number of vocalizations and signal the end of the vocal sequence by pecking at a target.

The authors found that the crows could successfully and purposefully produce a specific number of vocalizations in response to specific cues – a level of control not yet observed in other animals.

According to the findings, published in the journal Science, the birds appeared to plan the number of vocalizations before they started.

Analysis also showed that the timing and characteristics of the first vocalization predicted the overall ‘number’ they were counting towards, while each ‘number’ had different acoustic characteristics than others.

This is similar to how ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’ and ‘four’ sound different in human speech.

“This competence in crows also reflects toddlers’ enumeration skills before they learn to understand cardinal numbers and may therefore represent an evolutionary precursor to real counting where numbers are part of a combinatorial symbol system,” the researchers said.

Previous research has shown that crows are “as smart as monkeys” when it comes to logistical thinking and tool use.

This includes skills such as delaying gratification and reasoning, as well as the ability to recognize oneself in the mirror and feel empathy.


Research has shown that crows have reasoning skills comparable to those of a human seven-year-old.

Scientists came to this conclusion after subjecting six wild New Caledonian crows to a series of tests designed to test their understanding of cause and effect.

The tasks were all variations on Aesop’s fable, in which a thirsty crow drops stones to raise the water level in a jar.

In the ‘water displacement task’, crows tried out how to catch floating food rewards by dropping heavy objects into water-filled tubes.

They demonstrated the ability to drop sinking objects instead of floating objects, solid objects instead of hollow objects, to choose a high water level tube over a low water level tube, and a water filled tube over a tube filled with sand.

The birds’ understanding of the effects of volume displacement matched that of human children between the ages of five and seven, scientists from the University of Auckland claimed.