Something to crow about

The other evening, while I was walking my dog, the neighborhood crows were engaging in their usual near-sunset activities, which mostly involve wheeling around the sky, landing en masse on the power lines, cawing loudly at each other, then wheeling around again, going from tree to tree as if they’re all trying to come to an agreement as to which motel to check into for the night.

This particular evening, a good sized murder had settled around one tree, more or less, but various birds kept swooping in and out or going from branch to branch. The thing is, because of their positions and because I started to pay attention, something struck me.

Their calls were absolutely not at random. I’d hear one crow squawk a particular note a certain number of times, then another crow answer with a different note and number, and so on, and each crow always gave the same signal. Also, the shorter calls seemed to come from more mobile birds, while the longest calls came from the same places.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was a family gathering in which each member was either announcing their presence by saying their name or asking if a particular other crow was present by saying their name. It surprised me how completely distinct each call was. Every bird had their own unique note and register and tone of voice, right down to the point that birds with the same number of notes still sounded like individuals. And I don’t think I’m crazy when I say that the two or three birds with the longest calls really sounded like they were squawking with absolute authority.

This is very different than what you hear when the flock is sending out a warning of a predator in the area, or when they discover a member of the family that has been killed by one. In that case, the birds are generally wheeling around in the air, and their caws are more frantic, overlapping, and agitated. Similarly, if a rival flock tries to come into the area, you’ll hear something akin to the predator warning, although in this case the flock will stand its ground, since it’s protecting territory, and may be a bit less frantic and user shorter calls in a lower pitch.

The thing is, dinosaurs never died out. They just evolved into birds. And the corvids, as in crows and ravens and the like, are among the smartest of all birds. They can remember faces and actions. Pro-tip: Never do anything to threaten or annoy a crow, because they will just tell the other crows, and they will gang up on you ever after. On the other hand, if you leave them food, they may bring you shiny trinkets.

Even more remarkable, they can use tools, and figure out problems, like this crow.

At first, this may not seem that amazing, since the crow was taught each of the stages of this puzzle separately, but the key detail is that he was never taught how they all fit together to get the reward. That was the part he had to figure out, showing that these birds are indeed able to think logically and consider the future implications of present actions — “If I do A, then I’ll be able to do B,” and so on.

They have a lot of other superpowers, which are worth reading up on. One of the most amazing, though, is that in Japan, they learned the meaning of traffic lights and began exploiting cars to crack walnuts for them. Watch.

As David Attenborough explains the above, the crows figured out that they could drop a nut in the street while cars were going along it and the tires would crack the shells. Then, when the light changed and stopped traffic, the crows could simply trot into the crosswalk and grab their treat.

There happen to be a huge number of crows in my neighborhood, and I love it. They are majestic and intelligent, they clean up road kill and other crap, and it’s amusing to watch when two or three of them will casually try to intimidate a lone squirrel into revealing where she’s just buried her goodies. (But don’t get me wrong. I love squirrels, too.)

Near sunset seems to be congregation time for the flocks, and it’s always the same process. They will arrive en masse, starting out by landing on the overhead wires and striking up a conversation, albeit a noisy and overlapping one. Then, as if one of them fired an invisible starter’s gun, they’ll take off, soar around a bit, then come back to settle into one or two trees. This is when they begin their alternating individual calls.

I sometimes wish that it were legal to have pet crows, but, sadly, it’s been banned by Federal Law without a special permit since 1918. In case you’re wondering how Frank Capra got away with it, he didn’t. Although legend has it that he owned Jimmy the Crow, who appeared in all of his movies from It’s a Wonderful Life on, that bird was actually a raven, and he was owned by animal trainer Curley Twiford, who presumably had the right permits.

(EDIT: Hat-tip to Kaeli at Corvid Research, whose article I linked above, for pointing out that corvids were not banned under the migratory birds act until the early 1970s, and people did keep them as pets during the Depression, although as far as I know, Jimmy still wasn’t actually Capra’s pet, just another hired actor.)

Finally, there’s the famous riddle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which itself was really Lewis Carroll’s clapback at “modern” math of the day. Since he was also a mathematician, albeit a very conservative one, he took great umbrage at new innovations, like imaginary numbers, set theory, alternate geometries, and the like, and used his fictional works to satirize them. Or, in other words, he was kind of close-minded, although also a brilliant writer who managed to give us such endearing and enduring works as the Alice books, including the Jabberwocky poem contained in one of them, and the amazing stand-alone epic The Hunting of the Snark. By the way, Jabberwocky was the inspiration for the very weirdly wonderful early feature film of the same name directed by Terry Gilliam.

But I do digress. Here is Carroll’s riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” He intended it to be complete nonsense and, in fact, when he finally got tired of fans asking him about it, he provided his own answer, which really is rather inadequate: “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!” Unfortunately, the pun in the intentional misspelling of “nevar” (“raven” backwards) was “fixed” by a proofreader before this went into later editions, eliminating whatever bit of weak and pedantic humor was in Carroll’s original.

The “real” and much better answer, though, should be obvious. It’s because Poe wrote on both of them. Well, duh. And even though Carroll was British and Poe was American, the former should have heard of the latter, since Poe died when Carroll was only seventeen and managed to become somewhat well-known in his brief fortyish years. Carroll in particular should have known of Poe’s most famous work, The Raven, which is an absolute piece of music written in words. The rhyme schemes in it, both external and internal, are sheer art and brilliance, and the rhythm and intentional repetition absolutely create a mood and a forward motion that is inevitable.

But… none of this has anything to do with telling a hawk from a handsaw, by the way, unless Carroll was intentionally homaging Shakespeare with his poorly attempted riddle.

Here’s the point of all the crowing I’m doing, though. If you think that animals are not intelligent creatures with real emotional needs and wants, then you’re probably a little less than human yourself. Moving away from birds, I want to close with this absolutely delightful video that’s worth the time.

After watching those cows physically expressing joy at being let into the field after a long winter in the barn, I dare you to tell me that they are not thinking, feeling creatures.

Image source: Akshay Vijay Nachankar, used unaltered via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.