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.

How to develop super powers

If you’ve ever been to a party in a private residence — or any place with multiple rooms, actually — then you’ve no doubt experienced this phenomenon. Inevitably, people will wind up blocking doorways, particularly the one to the room with the food in it. Now you’d think that folk would instinctively realize that these things are made for walking through and not standing in, but their instincts seem to kick in the exact opposite way.

It isn’t just parties, either. I’ve seen it happen at the entrances to small theaters, where people will gather in the lobby and just outside the doors afterwards to chat and completely block the way in or out for everyone else. They do it in front of bars and restaurants if they gather outside to vape, although in those cases they usually wind up blocking the entire sidewalk. If seems to be a general rule that any sufficiently large group of people will expand to completely block whatever space is available for them to stand in.

I’ve even seen this happen in the lobby of the El Portal Theater, which stretches the entire width of the old Art Deco building and maybe twenty feet or more from back to front. When there’s a large enough audience for the main stage waiting in the lobby before they open the theater, the group will manage to spread out until they have created human walls that block the place side to side and front to back. They’re also particularly good at obliviously standing in front of the desk where I sell tickets to our show, backs turned to it, seemingly unaware that they are, in fact obstructing access for my patrons.

My personal bête noire, though, is the person in the grocery store who single-handedly manages to block the entire aisle because they place their cart on one side and then stand between it and the other side of the aisle to stare at the shelves as if they’ve never been in a grocery store before. In case it’s not obvious, you and the cart should stop on the same side, always. (These are probably the same people who stand in the middle of the escalator, one hand on each railing so that nobody can walk up the left side of the escalator to pass them.)

I’m not the only person to ask why this happens. I have to wonder if it’s a mammal thing. After all, my dog has a habit of standing in the kitchen doorway facing across the opening, and she’s big enough to block the whole thing. She’s particularly prone to doing this if I get up to go into the kitchen, and then she’ll just look at me as if she’s wondering why I stopped.

I found lots of anecdotal suggestions for why this happens, ranging from “people are just selfish and not self-aware” to more academic examples, like a human tendency to not feel safe in wide open spaces, hence gathering in the narrower, “safe” spaces. There’s also something to be said for the idea that people are more likely to run into each other in these chokepoints and start conversations, and so wind up sticking there — you run into an old friend as they’re coming out of a restaurant and you’re going in, for example. It’s much more likely that you’ll start chatting right there, rather than them going back in or you turning and walking back out.

The same may be true at parties, especially where a lot of the guests may know each other. You’re talking to Betty and Ralph in the living room, then decide to go grab another soda. You head for the kitchen and bump into Peter, who’s coming out of the kitchen at just that moment. You haven’t seen each other in a while and neither of you realized you were both at the party. Now, in your mind, you’re just heading in to quickly grab a Dr. Pepper. In his mind, he’s just coming out with a Coke, so you’re both thinking in terms of “I just came to do something quick.” Except that the quick has now been transformed by what becomes a conversation. Ta-da! You’ve just become victims of the doorway magnetism effect.

That’s just my thought, but I think you can see how this gets magnified in a situation like the theater lobby, because most of those audience members have specifically come with friends and family, and what else are they going to do before they go inside and take their seats? Talk. And they’re going to talk in little arrays of people made up of however many are in their group, whether it’s just a couple or a larger gathering, like a birthday outing. Each of these is going to become a separate entity, but since they’ll be turned inward from each other, they’re not really going to notice how close they’re standing. In effect, they’re spontaneously creating a human foam composed of bubbles and strings that will naturally expand to fill the space.

This still doesn’t explain the a-holes in grocery store aisles or on escalators, but I think it does explain the door blockers. My only suggestion for preventing this is to be very aware of when it’s likely to happen, and then be the one to initiate steps to avoid it. If you run into that friend coming out of a place, walk them a few steps away from the doorway to play catch up, and if you’re the one coming out, walk back in with them and move to the side. If you meet in a doorway at a party, it’s pretty much the same. If you’re on the way in for a soda, you can tell them to wait right there to the side and you’ll be back in two seconds, and then bring them fully into the other room. Or, of course, you can always just go into the room with them, because a conversation with an old friends is a lot more important than getting that soda right now, right?

Then again, self-awareness is a cure for a lot of society’s ills. It would certainly fix the aisle and escalator problems as well. And, as I’ve written about before, the skills we learn doing improv are all about developing awareness — not only of ourselves, but of everyone around us. The endgame to managing that is developing what appear, to ordinary people, to be super powers. They aren’t, though. They’re just the common human skills of observation and listening.

Image: Ivan Bandura, riot police blocking the way to the parliament building on Sunday night in Kiev, December 8, 2013.