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.

ETERNAL RIVALRY


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Like beautiful, headstrong sisters in a potboiler novel–one a rosy-cheeked English aristocrat, the other a purring Gallic seductress–London and Paris have vied for centuries to be crowned queen of the European capitals. Each has soaring cathedrals and treasure filled museums, a great river, and an iconic tower, and enough shopping and dining to occupy fashionistas and foodies alike for months.

Real hissing matches occur occasionally, and the hairsplitting could go on for years. Think of “The Tale of Two Cities”. During all the years since Dickens wrote his masterpiece, nothing has been settled. The statistics are notoriously confusing especially in the hands of tour guides who extol their chosen city with their iconic attractions. Their main arguments seems to be over who has the most visitors. Personally I wouldn’t visit a city just because or in spite of its number of visitors.

These cities have absolutely distinct personalities. I may be wrong, but my take has always been that London is a man’s town, with its solid stability, its mighty Thames river flowing majestically as a grand avenue to the sea, along with the solemnity of Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the imposing fortress of the Tower of London with its history of incarceration and stash of royal jewels.

In Paris, the Seine River is more intimate, lined with waterside walkers and strolling lovers past the gargoyles of Notre Dame, it’s Eiffel Tower seemingly woven of gossamer, and sparkling at night like champagne bubbles, could not be more feminine. As Rick Steves observes, “The is something enduring about London and endearing about Paris.”

CROWS FEET


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Corvus (Otherwise known as “Pesky Rotten Crows’
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It was one of our all-too-seldom warm evenings, and so I grabbed two plates, piled some salad on them, poured some iced tea, and we slipped out into the garden. It is so lovely at the this time of year, with roses in full bloom and the scent of jasmine filling the air, and we have to take advantage of every opportunity to just sit and enjoy it. Charlie, the resident Jack Russell Terrier, was happy too, and after checking out the bushes for unwary lizards and such, settled down under our feet in the shelter of the big white table under the arbor. Just as Dr. Advice and I were toasting each other with our gourmet Lipton tea, a large, black and decidedly ominous shadow swooped low over the warm patio, and settled on the roof of the house. We glared at each other and set our glasses down. “They’re back”, was an unnecessary observation from my husband.

Whatever else they may be, and we all know stories of their superior intelligence and trickiness, they are loud, noisy and obnoxious as they scream out their attention-getting squawk, inviting all the other crows in the neighborhood to come watch us eat our dinner. Periodically we receive visits from most of the crow population of Northern California, and they take turns washing their food in the birdbath, and probably do a lot of other things in it too that I don’t want to know about. It was pretty cute at first, but then they began stealing food from other birds and hiding it. Dr. Advice remembers watching the crow cousin, the raven, in Homer, Alaska at a seafood packing plant. A worker was moving a large tarp-covered bin filled with shrimp. One raven sat at the front of the bin-keeping the worker busy, while his companion on the rear end was flipping the tarp off and tossing shrimp out to his waiting companions on the ground. They have discovered the great secret of humans, there’s safety in numbers. On another occasion, this time in Wrangell, Alaska, a large and lazy German Shepherd, having recently been offered a scrap of meat, painfully got up and ambled over to retreive it. A couple of wily ravens joined forces, with one awaiting at the dog’s head, and his friend annoying the dog from the rear. As the dog tried vainly to take the meat, the one at the front grabbed it and flew away.

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While we bemoan the visitation rights of our crows, the famous ravens at the Tower of London are not only welcomed, but have clipped wings to keep them around and captive. The rule is there must always be six birds, and if one disappears for some reason, they have to bring another in. Only one bird survived the Blitz during the Second World War, so Winston Churchill ordered more brought in to bring the flock up to the correct size.

Superstition persists that “if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.” I have never heard the origin of this belief, or how they settled on six birds instead of ten, but they even have a bodyguard in livery, who makes sure they behave themselves. The ravens are enlisted as soldiers of the kingdom, and can be dismissed for unsatisfactory conduct. They are all named, and Raven George was dismissed and sent to Wales for attacking TV aerials. A few years ago another bird got his dishonorable discharge for visiting a local pub. You can’t blame a bird for lusting after a cool Guiness on a hot day.

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