Archive for the ‘crows’ Category

I live near the greenbelt surrounding Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Mountain campus. As a result, I see more wildlife than most suburbanites in my daily routine.

The neighborhood is full of coyotes who have learned not to cross the roads against the traffic flow, and red-tailed hawks who perch on lamp posts, waiting endlessly for road-kill. Every year or two, a mountain lion or bear swims across the inlet and causes a panic, and the mountain used to support a pair of ravens (and possibly still does). And all of this is in addition to the usual squirrels, song birds and seagulls that you can find anywhere in the urban sprawl.

However, by far the most dramatic manifestation of living on the border between the city and the wilderness is when a bald eagle comes hunting in my townhouse complex, and the crows counter-attack in defense of their nests.

It usually happens in late June or July, when this years’ offspring are just leaving the nest. The first sign that a predator is in the area is the suddenly silence outside. If I go to the window, all the smaller birds are flying within ten meters of the ground, darting into the thicker, lower branches of the trees.

From the directions they are coming from, I usually have no trouble locating the eagle, sitting on some high perch, always looking larger than seems possible, and with the mad gleam of a single-minded predator in its eye. Even though eagles rarely attack humans, it’s a sight that’s as frightening as it is magnificent.

The crows take part in the general exodus. But, as soon as they have found shelter – or perhaps checked that their fledglings are safe – they start calling to each other.

Apart from being louder and more alarmed, their calls sound no different than usual to me. Yet the calls obviously mean something to the crows, because, after a few minutes, they rise to confront the eagle, like Spitfire pilots during the Battle of Britain.

The crows, of course, lack the talons and beaks of the eagle, and are fighting well above their weight. However, they fight as a team – and that makes all the difference.

The crows attack from all sides, never staying still, flying at the eagle but always veering away at the last moment. The eagle no sooner focuses attention on one or two crows than they have moved out of the way, taking temporary shelter in the lower, thicker branches that the eagle has trouble squeezing between. Meanwhile, more crows are dive-bombing it from another direction, and the eagle has to whirl about to keep an eye on them. No sooner has it done so than more crows have moved in from yet another side. There are always dozens of crows, so they have no trouble keeping up their attacks indefinitely.

Usually, though, they don’t have to. Within moments, the eagle has been reduced from predator to fugitive. Abandoning its efforts to attack, it looks for a refuge in the trees, never finding one, since crows can maneuver anywhere it can. Within twenty minutes, it is crashing from tree to tree, trying to escape. Meanwhile, behind it, crows keep rising to meet it, then returning to shelter for a temporary rest while other crows take up the fight.

Once, when walking up to the corner store, I saw one of these attacks about twenty meters above me. From the way its feathers were plastered tight against its body, I could tell that the eagle was not only bewildered, but actually terrified as it was driven from shelter after shelter, never getting enough of a respite to counter-attack.

I half-wondered if the eagle might be so confused that it would attack me, or if the crows in their anger would see me as another intruder and deal with me the same way, but neither of these things happened. Instead, the eagle continued careening from tree to tree, disappearing into the distance while from every tree around me, crows were calling in anger. I tried not to think of Hitchcock’s The Birds, and continued on my errand as the fight moved gradually further away.

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One way that you know an artist is talented is when other artists are eager for their work. Gwaai Edenshaw is in that enviable position among the Northwest Coast artists who live in Vancouver. A some-time botanist and Bill Reid’s last apprentice, he works largely in gold, although he has been known to sketch, carve wood, and even experiment with animation. Having admired his work since we first saw it, Trish and I recently celebrated our anniversary by buying two of his rings.

Mine is based on an episode in “Raven Traveling,” the Haida narrative of the Trickster’s wanderings near the beginning of time. On the beach, the raven encounters a group of crows. They begin to cook a salmon. The raven falls asleep, but the crows can’t wait for him to wake, and devour the salmon. Belatedly, they realize that the raven will be angry when he rouses, so they take the remaining crumbs of salmon, and wedge them between his teeth. When the raven wakes, hungry for his meal, they point out the crumbs and ask, “Don’t you remember? You ate it before you went to sleep.” Angry at the deception, Raven throws the crows into the fire, turning them forever from white to black.

I appreciate the story for its broad humor, as well as its extrapolation from nature; crows really do mob ravens, especially when their young are in the nest. If crows could play practical jokes on ravens, they undoubtedly would. Also, the story is not one of the ones that is generally depicted, like raven’s stealing of the light, or even his theft of the salmon from the beavers.

I suggested the subject to Edenshaw, and waited with all the patience that anticipation would allow for six months until he had time to get to it.

The result was more than worth the wait. Edenshaw chose a style that fits the humor of the story, showing the raven with his beak open and crows rollicking around him, pushing the crumbs of salmon into his mouth and their beaks open in excitement, no doubt chortling with glee at the thought of putting one over on their rival.

Since the raven has teeth in the story, and the Haida storytellers must have had plenty of chances to notice that birds have none, I assume that he must have been in human form when he met the crows. However, the fact that Edenshaw chose to show the raven as a bird with teeth in his beak does not detract, any more than the teeth in the beak of the parrot in Aladdin. It is a comic touch, and the result is reminiscent of the lively cartoons that you see in the margins of medieval manuscripts. I especially like the mischievous crow that is pushing a piece of salmon along the raven’s back (You can see the crow’s beak just behind the top of the raven’s head).

At the same time, I appreciate the economy and skill with which Edenshaw rendered the story. Like a business card (only more so), a ring provides a very limited space for depicting anything, yet Edenshaw manages to focus on the main event of the story, while selectively choosing details so that, while the feathers on raven’s head are not visible, the pieces of salmon clearly are. The detail is all the more amazing when you consider that the ring is cast, not engraved.

So far as I am concerned, Edenshaw produced a ring that is utterly unique, and wonderfully rich in humor and detail. After wearing it for several weeks, and having appreciated the small extra touches with which it was delivered (in a small wooden box, with the promise that the mold would be kept, in case the original was lost), I fully intend to buy more of Gwaai Edenshaw’s work. But if, as I suspect, his prices rise as he receives the recognition he deserves, at least we have a couple of samples of his work to console ourselves.


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The other night, I was lying on the futon when I noticed our parrots going absolutely rigid. Unlike their usual habit, when they see a crow or a seagull, they were not calling out. They were making small, disturbed chirps, and their feathers were tight against their bodies – a sure sign of agitation.

Looking outside, I couldn’t see any reason for their disturbance at first. Then I noticed crows and smaller birds streaking low into the trees, and I realized a predator must be in the neighborhood. Sure enough, after a moment, I spotted a bald eagle perched atop tree about a hundred meters from the window.

Most of what I could see with my unaided eyes was a black silhouette, since it was less than twenty minutes before sunset. Still, there was no mistaking what I was seeing. Although I had nothing I could compare the silhouette with to be sure of its size, the general outline was nothing like the crows that usually sit on that perch. It was longer and thinner. It didn’t move like a crow, either. It kept peering this way and that with a jerk of the head that was most uncrow-like, and fanning and unfanning its tail.

Nor could the avian reactions, both outside or in leave me with any doubt that I was seeing a predator. Outside, I could see more silhouettes streaking low across the sky behind the eagle towards shelter. Nearby, the usual sounds as the birds go to roost were completely missing from the night. Inside, our parrots were tense and straining forward to keep an eye on the visitor, ignoring everything else.

What interested me about the parrots’ reaction was that they had no trouble recognizing a predator when they saw one. Of our four parrots, at least one was taken from the wild as a baby, and one was born in our living room, and neither of them could have had any personal experience of raptors, yet both reacted exactly the same as the other two. Of course, nanday conures are a flock species, and alarms and greetings spread quickly, even between parrots who don’t like each other. Yet it seems clear that, at some instinctual level, they knew a predator when they saw one.

At the same time, the two on the futon were not so alarmed that they panicked. On some level, they seemed to know that they were far enough away not to be a main target. Possibly, too, they were aware of the window between them and the eagle; one of the first bits of training we do with all our birds is introduce them to the window, so that they don’t fly into it by accident. Instead of backing slowly away, as I half-expected, they not only stayed where they were, but actually moved forward a bit, craning, to get a better view. In other words, they were on alert, but seemed aware that they were safe. Perhaps what I was seeing was instinct and intelligence fighting for control.

After about five minutes, the eagle stirred abruptly, seeming to fall rather than fly from its perch. I soon found out why: a half dozen crows were charging it. A predator can make short work of a single crow, but a determined flock of crows outhinks and outguns it, and this eagle was obviously experienced enough not to challenge its attackers. Now its turn had come to seek shelter, and the last I saw, it was flapping furiously, trying to outdistance the crows and not having much luck.

The crows, no doubt, had a strong incentive. This past ten days or so, the first of this year’s baby crows have been taking their first flying lessons, leaving many of them stranded permanently or temporarily on the ground, or on remote perches without being quite sure how to get back to the nest. I had been dive-bombed several times myself because of my curiosity, and no doubt the eagle, for whom the crow fledglings provide an easy meal, had raised the ire of the adults.

Given the timing, you can almost imagine the adult crows acting like a fighter squadron, scrambling to get a response into the air as soon as possible to confront the danger. When you consider crows’ intelligence and social organization, that metaphor might even be a reasonably literal description of what happened.

With the eagle gone, our parrots relaxed almost instantly – another sign, I suppose, that they know exactly what a predator is. As for me, I was left with both a gut-level awareness of the eagle as predator and our parrots as prey species that I had never had before. And, for all my fascination with observing the reactions, I found that I was relaxing too, along with the rest of my flock.

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In casual conversation a couple of days ago, I heard that Alex, the African Gray studied by Irene Pepperberg, was found dead in his lab last week. I’ve been reading about Alex for over twenty years, so the news struck me hard, both because of what he represented and my memory of what my life might been.

The summary of Pepperberg’s work with Alex is that he was the emotional equivalent of a two year old human child and the intellectual equal of a five year old one. To parrot owners, that is not surprising news – we’ve known for a long time that, when you look at a parrot, someone looks back at you, just as with a raven or crow (In fact, I’ve always found it interesting that parrots dominate the southern hemisphere and the corvidae the northern. Where they overlap, they tend to forage at different times at day, as if they have figured out the best way to minimize confrontations). But what Pepperberg is doing is establishing the intelligence of parrots scientifically, closing the door to doubt in a way that the anecdotal evidence of pet owners never could.

Alex’s obituary in the New York Times a few days ago called him a genius parrot. However, we don’t know that. Alex may have been a genius, but he could have been a normal African Gray, or even a dull one. We don’t know yet. However, perhaps Pepperberg’s work with other Grays will establish that over the next couple of decades.

However, just as important as establishing Alex’s intelligence is how Pepperberg did it. Remember the language studies with gorillas and chimpanzees thirty years ago? They were partially discredited because of poor experiment design and obvious anthropomorphizing. No doubt in response to such problems, Pepperberg designed Alex’s tests to be tougher than those done with primates, and in such a way as to minimize the bias of the experimenters. Yet, despite these tighter controls, Alex proved his intelligence.

Another interesting part of the Alex studies was Pepperberg’s use of a second trainer besides the one conducting the experiment who acted as a rival for the parrot to imitate. This teaching method proved far more effective than simple rewards, probably because it transformed learning into a social activity by giving Alex someone to emulate and compete against. The method could have a major effect on learning theory, if educators would only take notice of it.

For all these reasons, Alex deserves to be remembered as an important figure in science. Yet now that he is dead, what I remember is how nearly I came to doing similar work. I graduated from university with a double major in English and Communications, and, when I decided to start graduate school, I seriously considered doing similar studies with another parrot species. I even went so far as to write Pepperberg a letter about my plans, to which she was kind enough to reply. But the Communications Department at Simon Fraser University only admitted grad students in the Fall Semester, and I was starting in January, so I went into the English Department instead.

Thinking back, I can’t help thinking that of how different my life would have been if I had started my own parrot studies. Almost certainly, I would have missed the worst trauma of my life. And probably, I would have made the pilgrimage to see Alex up close at least once.

It’s too late for that now, and I’ll always regret it. By all I’ve seen, Alex was as exasperating a bundle of beak and feathers as any Gray I’ve ever met.
Having lost a parrot a few years ago, I can easily imagine how Pepperberg must feel. Losing a dog or a cat is hard enough, but losing a parrot is closer to losing a person. She always did her best to be professional with him while doing her studies, but you didn’t have to look very carefully to see that she adored Alex. I’m sure for her that the loss was not just professional, but personal as well.

Still, I envy her even in her loss. In these pre-spaceflight days, how many of us can say that we conversed daily with an alien species?

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Since I live beside a green belt, one of my markers of the year is when this year’s crop of newly-fledged crows become independent. The Vancouver area is in the middle of the season now, and it never fails to entertain me.

The first sign that the baby crows have left the nest is the echo of their plaintive cries as they try to convince their parents to regurgitate for them. The more aggressive of the babies go so far as to push themselves underneath their parents’ beaks. At first, many of the adults oblige, but, after a week or two, they keep their beaks resolutely shut, no matter how the babies position themselves. Once, I even saw an adult thrown off balance by a baby’s insistence. And there’s always a few parents who do their best to lose junior at this stage.

Eventually, though, the young ones grudgingly accept their independence. They come together in groups of four to twelve birds, all identifiable as young ones by the narrowness of their bodies and their slightly shrill cries. Like human teenagers, they tend to do everything together, the flock chasing after one who has sighted something that’s possibly edible and squabbling as they brush against each other in midflight or land too close together. They seem to congregate where the food is plentiful, such a shopping mall, and, for a few months at any rate, their elders seem to cede such places to them.

At this stage, the young crows are clumsy – which isn’t surprising, considering how fast most birds grow in their first few months. They simply haven’t had time to learn coordination in the middle of their constant growth. Frequently, they’ll try to land on a branch too small for their weight, and lose their footing as the branch whips up and down. They haven’t learned, either, to coordinate hopping along the ground and keeping an eye out around them, so they sometimes trip themselves.

Unfortunately, too, they don’t understand cars, and some of them always die each year before they can learn. However, crows are adaptable enough that many of them learn quickly enough to survive. In another month or so, they’ll have left their small flocks for the great host of crows that roosts about six or seven miles from where I live, and become at least tentative adults.

Many people despite crows as vermin, and no doubt I would feel the same if I were a farmer. But as an urbanite, I find myself impressed by how adaptable crows can be to human changes to the environment. Whatever else you can say, crows are survivors, and I always enjoy their first self-taught lessons in how to get on in the world.

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