Bear saves crow. But why?

August 3, 2014 • 8:45 am

by Matthew Cobb (with assistance from Prof. Ceiling Cat)

Reader Crary called this recently posted video to our attention, with the YouTube notes below. It’s gone viral ( >4 million views) so you may well have seen it. Spoiler: a bear in a zoo saves a crow from the moat around its enclosure.

My initial assumption was that the bear was going to eat it, but that clearly is not the case, as the ursine simply turns away and gets on with its carrots. It sure looks as if the bear is saving the crow. If he’s sequestering it to nom later he’s done a pretty poor job.

This “altruism” between distantly-related species mystifies both me and Jerry. Perhaps you have other ideas what is happening. At any rate, the crow was saved (we  hope).

Filmed at Budapest ZOO (Hungary), 19. 6. 2014
Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ72

75 thoughts on “Bear saves crow. But why?

  1. I saw this yesterday on the Corvid Blog along with what I thought of as a good explanation. Animals in captivity have decidedly different behaviors than in the wild. Because all their basic needs are being met, they can devote their time to other things that don’t deal directly with survival. Bears are rather intelligent animals (see how elaborate garbage containers have to be in national parks to prevent bears from getting into them.) I think the bear was likely doing something different because it had nothing better to do. It wasn’t likely very hungry, so why bother eating the bird?

    1. Or maybe it decided that apples and carrots were the best way to get that crow taste off its tongue…

      1. This was my thought — he used his mouth when pulling the bird from the water. Maybe he just decided he didn’t like the taste of crow. :o)

    2. This was my explanation as well. Zoo bears are very well fed in general and this bear had an enclosure full of food that was neither covered in feathers nor sporting a large ferocious bill. When you’ve got it made you can afford a little charity.

  2. I’m just an engineer, so I know diddly about this, but two ideas come to mind:
    1. The behaviour of the crow may have been familiar to the bear; that is, its behaviour may have elicited some instinctive response by the bear.
    2. Maybe the bear was distracted by the crow’s behaviour.

  3. “This “altruism” between distantly-related species mystifies both me and Jerry.”

    Doesn’t it likely come from the same place our love of cats (or in some cases, squirrels) comes from, sloppy pattern matching? Don’t we like cats because they fill our malleable nurturing instincts meant to care for human children? Why wouldn’t bear crow altruism be from the same basic mechanism?

    1. I agree. It’s the same reason that *we* might rescue a struggling bird. i.e. we have a sense of empathy that enables us to enter into and sympathize with the suffering of others, something that was presumably selected by kin and/or reciprocal altruism. And if you paint with a broad brush then you are likely have a wide splash area – evolution doesn’t need to be specific, since the number of harmful situations where one might display misplaced empathy was probably minimal.

    1. Looked like a “hoodie” pattern to the crow’s plumage, if you ask me. Possibly only in the underlayer of “downy” feathers, but not in the contour (outer) feathers.

  4. It could be a rescue triggered by a strong and beneficial instinct to aid another in distress. Social animals are known to do that, like dolphins rescuing human swimmers.

    1. A friend of mine, a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard, once commented on this. He said; “Yeah, but we never hear from the ones they drag to sea”.

      1. Well, no. It may be that this bear was a female, so perhaps the crow triggered a moment of maternal feelings.
        Or maybe the bear was just curious.

      2. Fuonily, they’re more social than we tend to give them credit for. I work on a conservation ranch in western Montana with ~ 125 cameras installed across a 9,000 acre property. We’ve had numerous occasions of black bears interacting over sometimes periods of days at a time. On at least one occasion, a pair of year 2+ males interacted non-aggressively for several days. We then caught them again on camera three weeks later.

  5. Maybe he thought it was a fish, but not being hungry and discovering it wasn’t a fish, he had no further interest in it.

    1. My thought exactly. Crow triggered a fishing instinct in the bear. The bear has kind of a “ugh” look on it face when it shakes the crow out of its mouth. Who wants to eat a fish with feathers all over it?

    2. This is the most reasonable explanation I’ve read so far (haven’t read the remaining comments yet). Bears are not social animals, so unless this particular bear is a pregnant female or currently has young, I doubt there was any nurturing instinct going on. My educated guess (ex-wildlife biologist) is that the crow triggered the bear’s hunting instinct, but when the crow was retrieved, the bear, for whatever reason (lack of hunger, not used to eating live prey, etc.), put the crow down. Just like some pet cats will hunt mice and birds, but stop somewhere along the hunting behavior pathway – just play with it, just kill it but not eat it, etc.

  6. I am STILL baffled by this; I had many of the same thoughts as earlier commenters–my main thesis was that the commotion simply annoyed the bear. But that doesn’t explain why the big mammal is so (apparently) gentle while ‘saving’ the crow. This video appeals to me because I am still fascinated by how we tend to both anthropomorphize animals at the same time as we (in my opinion) drastically underestimate their emotional life.

    1. Didn’t look gentle to me; he slaps the crow a couple of times during the alleged “rescue”. I would not want to be slapped like that by a bear.

  7. Did you hear all the crows in the background of that video making a racket?

    I’ve seen that behavior in the past. Some years ago a young crow flew into a window at my home. It lay stunned and unmoving on the ground. Within a few minutes other crows arrived and began making raucous calls. Soon there were more than a dozen, all vocalizing loudly. Shortly thereafter the stunned crow got to his feet and, after a few wobbly minutes, managed to fly away. A similar incident happened just a few weeks ago when I came across a crow that had gotten clipped by a car sitting on the sidewalk (I was across the street on my bike). A dog on a leash was nearby, but although the dog made no attempt to get at the injured bird several alarmed crows in the tree above started to make a lot of noise. Within minutes, again, more than a dozen crows arrived and starting making a hell of a racket. The injured crow eventually flew off and the gang (murder?) of crows departed as well.

    The second may have have been crows ganging up on the dog. Many times I’ve seen various birds (sometimes more than one species at once) ganging up on eagles – a behavior called “mobbing”. But that can’t account for the first incident – I could not be seen by the crows in the trees. I’ve often wondered if the shouting crows were attempting to encourage their injured brethren.

  8. If the bear had latched on to the crows head, instead of it’s wing, we wouldn’t be wondering about this now. I think it’s our own propensity to find a pattern where one probably doesn’t exist.

      1. Probably for food – which it has plenty of but is still instinctually driven to acquire something so readily available and fresh. Then the bear seems to just get sloppy in not making sure the crow is immobile. Something that seems probable for a zoo-fed bear.

        1. It may have a hunting-feeding pattern in two parts: get the nom, eat the nom. It got the nom, but didn’t eat the nom on account of being well-fed already (and perhaps not into eating wet feathers).

          Being gentle-ish with it along the way would under this reading be a matter of chance; as another mentioned, it could as well have grabbed it by the head and we wouldn’t be seeing this then.

  9. Once I saw a crow put its head on the ground with one of its eyes looking up. A second crow who was in close proximity then used his beak to deftly “pick” something out of the first bird’s exposed eye. Then they flew off.

    1. That was my thought. When I fish a bug out of my wineglass, it’s not out of concern for the bug.

  10. I honestly don’t know, but:

    To me it looked like the typical behaviour of a bear catching salmon.

    As to why the bear did not (immediately) kill or eat the corvid:

    -Maybe the bear realised that the bird is not a salmon.
    -Maybe the bear has never learned how fine-tune its salmon-catching and killing skills.
    -Maybe salmons don’t get that far on land anyway, so it was not so unreasonable for the bear to let the snack lie there, waiting for him.
    -Maybe that is not true, but the bear made a mistake in assuming that.

    I wonder how many crows the bear pushed into the water though. And whether crows are worth the calories.

    1. I second naNiNomynous’ theory.
      Bear’s brain: Floppy thing in water? Most likely fish and edible. Retrieve floppy thing. Further observation and a peck on the nose indicates thing is not a fish. Back to non-pecking carrots!
      As a side note, it’s nice that the human brain wants to see this behavior as altruism.

      1. Agree with this. Bear grabs something splashing around franticaly in the water. Gingerly (not gently) pulls it ashore. Gets a peck on the nose and decides to ignore the whole incident.
        Must have been embarassing – there were all those people watching too! ;-D

  11. Well, one possible explanation that the bear considered eating the crow but was not really hungry neither accustomed to resisting food and had enough when the crow bit it’s nose.

    1. Yes, the bear reacts as if stung when the crow picks it on the nose.
      I do not see anything gentle or ‘saving’ in the bears behaviour.
      In other words: the bear caught a prey or toy, but the crow fights back and wins.

  12. To me, judging by the stout bill and the iridescence, the bird has the look of a juvenile raven. But the cawing does seem crowish.

  13. It looks like the crow pecks the bear just as it’s pulled on to land, at 52-53 seconds. That may have been disconcerting for the bear since it’s meals don’t usually put up a fight.

  14. I am a staunch evolutionist and look for adaptiveness in all things biological. However, I think in the case, to ask “why?” in ultimate, evolutionary terms or in proximate terms (either way, to look for a “just-so story”), is futile. What we are dealing with here is an animal with a large, complex brain, of which we should admit to being no where close to being able to predict functions and outcomes. Many non-human animals, particularly predatory mammals like the main protagonist in this story, have far more between the ears than we give them credit for.

    1. This makes sense to me. Humans amuse ourselves; the bear could have been engaging in a “what the heck is this” reaction and then merely lost interest.

  15. The crow is your standard east/north European hooded crow; its body is gray, head and wings black. The all-black crow only coincides with the hooded one in northern Great Britain.

    As to why the bear pulled it out, who knows? Perhaps the noise bothered it, perhaps the crows have in the past interacted with it in some way.

  16. Slumbery and Mike Leegaard both point out that the bird bit or pecked the bear’s face just as the bird is dropped to the ground. I noticed this too. You can see by how the bear shakes its head that the pecking must have stung. This could explain why the bear returns to eating carrots, leaving the bird alone. Why it pulled the bird out of the water in the first place isn’t obvious, but there are plenty of good explanations in addition the “saving’ one.

  17. I find it interesting that people are watching this video and seeing a bear saving a crow.

    What I see is a bear becoming interested in a commotion in the water, and as someone else said having his fishing instinct triggered, checking out some possible food.
    The bear’s swiping of his paw toward the crow sure didn’t look gentle, it looked like the type of swipe bears do when catching fish.

    Then as the bear is pulling his possible food up, the crow clearly bites him (or pecks him) jolting the bear and making him decide the docile veggies nearby were more

  18. I remember reading a study showing that watching someone else perform an action activates similar parts of your brain as when you yourself are performing those actions, and that this is used to help your brain learn from others. See someone else touch something hot and yelp in pain, and you imagine feeling that pain yourself — meaning you no longer have to actually touch that stove to know that it hurts.

    My theory, which is probably not original, is that empathy is a side effect of this mutation and wouldn’t have to be selected for individually. It should be present at some level in any creature with a similar learning mechanism — as long as its more powerful instincts are taken care of.

    So why not bears? They’re among the more intelligent animals.

    1. It really is pure speculation as to why the bear pulled the bird out of the water. Empathy? Why not? Fishing instinct? Why not? Curiosity? Why not?

      As to why the bear returned to eating carrots, that’s pretty easy. The bird pecked the bear hard in the face.

  19. This clip is equally enjoyable and educational. One thing is for certain: we have a lot more to learn from our animal relatives.

    As Sir David Attenborough eloquently states, “One life. One planet. We can cherish or destroy, the choice is entirely up to us.”

    Shooting with cameras helps us cherish while shooting with rifles helps us destroy. I choose cameras!

    Enjoy your dance in the sun and help others do the same! Peace!

  20. One could plunk down for a compromise explanation too: “floppy thing in water – check to see if floppy thing is food and/or offspring, remove – if food and hungry, eat; if offspring, leave on land; if awful feathery pecky thing, drop and resume day.”

    I joke that our dog figures out what’s food based on what the stomach keeps down after eating. Maybe bored bears similarly suss out details after something’s in their mouth.

  21. My sister, who works as a manager at a PetCo store, offered what might be the best explanation:

    I believe that the movement of the crow in the water interested the bear. Possibly it stimulated the bear’s brain by appearing to be a fish. He simply checked out the situation, and then lost interest. Inadvertently the crow was saved, but by no means did the bear intend to save the crow.

  22. My guess tends more toward the distress instinct and having plenty of other food. I read somewhere recently that bears get only about 10% of their nutrition from meat sources, so this may have figured into the equation as well.

  23. There is another video that has been going around of a moray eel that recognises and displays friendly behaviour towards a woman, over some years.
    I would never have expected it in an eel, but it seems to be real.

  24. People are overlooking an obvious symbiotic relationship between an alpha predator and an airborne scavenger.

    In the wild crows help bears, cougars, and wolves find prey that the crows cannot kill themselves. In exchange the crows eat the left overs unmolested.

    The existence of the crow in the natural environment can be the difference between a bear getting a meal or starving. Though bears are omnivores they need protein from prey animals.

    This has been going on for millions of years, so instinctively a bear is going to save the crow.

    1. You’re assuming a great deal with that. Among other things, you’re starting with the idea that the bear has the same level of abstract reasoning that a human has that would allow it to make the leap from “stop the crow from drowning” to “get food from the crow later.” How would it know this? Besides that, this was a bear in a zoo that doesn’t depend on finding carcasses to scavenge for its survival.

      1. Agreed. The fact that bear and crow populations are in a mutually beneficial relationship does not entail that they must behave altruistically toward each other as individuals. I’m not seeing where the selection pressure for such one-on-one altruism would come from, since opportunities for it must be rare, and the incremental value to the bear of one more live crow in the environment is surely negligible.

        Of course I’m prepared to be proved wrong by evidence that bears do in fact rescue crows in the wild.

      2. Also in a zoo one would need to know some previous history. If Lorenz could persuade some goslings that he was their mum, then a bear might easily see a crow, in the right place and time, as a sibling.

        1. Bears are naturally solitary animals. Even if it did somehow see a crow as a sibling (which sounds like it would take extremely unlikely circumstances in order to occur), it still doesn’t follow that the bear would deliberately save the life of the crow as a result unless you can show that bears regularly act to save the lives of their siblings in the wild by pulling them out of rivers if they start to drown.

Leave a Reply