BIRD BRAINS


We were awakened in the grey dawn by the frenzied barking of an angry Jack Russell, announcing the return of Henry, our semi-resident crow. Henry and his pals come to scrounge our yard and annoy us periodically. Our prejudice is reflected in our language; after all, a group of crows is called a murder, which seems a good idea, and their relatives, the ravens, are called an unkindness. Is it their color, their loud voice or their aggressive behavior?

It is too bad that these glossy black corvids have aroused the same suspicions as black cats, black sheep and black hats. A sexy little black dress might elicit some suspicion as well. I think it has everything to do with the voice. When the crows come to town, their raucous cawing announces their arrival. I have the same opinion of certain politicians. Their aggressive behavior can be frightening, as well.

The same sentiment is reflected in art: American realist Winslow Homer’s iconic 1893 painting Fox Hunt depicts the popular nineteenth century notions of crows as symbols of doom. In the painting, two low-flying crows harass a red fox as he makes his way over a snowy landscape, while in the background more crows lurk ominously. In the painting the crows are chasing and frightening the fox, and the viewer wants to shoo the birds away. And despite the fact that the most famous quote of his writing career is attributed to a raven, even Edgar Allen Poe considered the whole crow family grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous.

In 1989, the British House of Lords rose in outrage that corvids should receive some sort of protection like other birds. But one lawmaker cried out “What if the ravens left the Tower of London?” Legend warns that this would mean the fall of the Kingdom, and to prevent such a catastrophe, the nation employs a royal raven keeper.

But these birds aren’t a gang of nasty villains. They are really just birds who are among the most family-oriented birds in the world. Crows and their relatives are expert tool users. They actually make tools to help them accomplish their goal, and they can use two different tools in succession. They frequently work as a team.

When in Alaska visiting many fisheries, Dr. A often witnessed ravens working together to steal shrimp off the large trays in the packing houses. The shrimp were covered with tarp, and the crow army assembled in well rehearsed formation. Some on the ground, a couple on the tarp, and of course, watchmen to announce human arrival. As the ravens threw the tarp off the shrimp, they threw them onto the ground, where waiting ravens took them away.

In the city, crows go even further; they manage to use human tools to their ends. Walnuts are a crop new to Japan, but lately groves seem to be springing up everywhere. Crows find walnuts tasty and nutritious, but the shells are hard to open. The solution; crows pluck the nuts from the trees, then fly to perch on the traffic signal at the nearest intersection. When the light is red, they fly down and place the nuts in the front of waiting cars. When the light turns green, the cars run them over, cracking the hard shells. when the light turns red again and the cars stop, the crows fly down to safely eat the nutmeats.

The answer to facing up to these efficacious winged intruders is don’t get mad, get smarter.

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

10 thoughts on “BIRD BRAINS”

  1. Crows are our JRT Milo worst enemies. His daily walk into town is mainly geared to find roof-top crows. You can see his beady eyes scanning the rooftops of the shopping strip. He always finds them and is not happy till the crows fly away by his constant barking and manic jumping.
    I am sure that the crows know him as a local irritant and they taunt him now. Fully justified, I think.

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    1. I think it is built in to them. Once they spot them there’s no going back. You are correct in saying the crows recognize Milo. They even take note of our faces when we come into the yard. I try to be nice to them so they don’t yell at me.

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  2. Those two stories — the shrimp stealers and the walnut crackers — are completely new to me. It is an amazement, the way they’re able to reason things out. As the saying has it these days, they make a plan, and then work the plan.

    I’m working in a new marina now, right next to a main channel, and every day I watch the shrimp boats come in. They cull and sort the catch as they’re motoring in, and lined up across the stern of the boat are the egrets, just waiting to be flipped a shrimp.

    I grew up with an affection for ravens. We called them rain ravens because they would ride the winds ahead of a storm. Whenever we saw them spiraling up into the sky, we knew that rain was on the way.

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    1. I saw an exhibit in which they constructed an elaborate pathway with ladders, etc. and a bit of food at the end. The crow made his way through the entire thing, even using a small twig to open a little door, to get the food. He did it. Amazing.
      Your new marina sounds fun to watch with egrets and all.
      I don’t remember crows or ravens when I was small, but we lived near the beach so there were lots of seagulls. They were always around at lunch time.

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  3. I enjoyed this post and your examples of the cleverness of crows because I have long studied them and their fellow corvids and have found much to admire. I like their bossy attitude, their glossy black feathers, and their problem-solving natures so well depicted by your examples.

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