And the answer: Cheetos.
Cheetos were chosen for their bright, easy-to-spot color for research purposes in 2016. The study wanted to understand the complex relationship between crows and magpies. The crows pushed the magpies aside and were more apt to steal the snack.
Unless you live in the hottest, driest desert on the planet, chances are you’ve spotted (or more likely, heard) a crow. Although they’re found just about everywhere, the common crow has long been perceived as an agent of trickery, or a harbinger of evil. In fact, this connotation goes back so far that its thought to be the driving force behind the name used specifically to describe a group of crows: a murder.
The perception of crows is likely due to their dark coloring, loud squawk, and, more than anything, their intelligence. Indeed, one common yet often misunderstood quality of crows is their ability to understand exactly what’s going on around them, as crows are among the smartest birds in the world (considered to be on par with the intelligence of chimpanzees). More often than not, this translates into what we perceive as trickery, as crows are smart, opportunistic eaters who will snag a snack wherever they can find one.
The intelligence of crows also means more complex interpersonal relationships in the murder (or should I say, inter-crow-senal?). Recent research has shown that crows are known to hold “funerals" and "wakes." When an American Crow finds the dead body of another crow, it will call out to alert others in the area, who will gather and begin to make a ruckus themselves. The common understanding held by researchers now is that the behavior helps crow communities learn about potential threats.
Interestingly, the intelligence of crows doesn’t just translate into their relationships with their murder—it even informs how they see humans. In 2009, a team of researchers from the University of Washington captured American Crows in nets while wearing a caveman mask, before then releasing them back onto campus. When the researchers later walked across campus wearing the same mask, the crows scolded and dive-bombed them. Fascinatingly, more than 10 years after capturing just seven crows, over half of the crows on campus still raised the alarm at the sight of a caveman mask.
Learn more about these incredible creatures here.