POSSESSING LARGE BRAINS for his or her physique dimension, a knack for social networking that requires no web connection, and eager powers of remark, crows and ravens are among the many large personalities of the chook world. They’re additionally what ornithologist Dr. John Marzluff calls, “black-feathered practitioners of lifelong studying,” and from him we are able to study in regards to the capability of their avian brains and the vary of issues it permits them to do–from the humorous to the daring, a lot of it virtually unbelievable.
Marzluff is a famend ornithologist and concrete ecologist, and professor of wildlife sciences on the College of Washington. He’s writer most lately of “Welcome to Subirdia”—his fifth e book. He has written different titles particularly about his space of specific experience, the corvids—crows, ravens, jays and their relations—together with one in collaboration with illustrator Tony Angell that I simply learn known as “Items of the Crow,” the topic of our dialogue.
Learn alongside as you hearken to the Dec. 21, 2015 version of my public-radio present and podcast utilizing the participant beneath. You may subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts right here).
my crow and raven q&a with dr. john marzluff
Q. It has been raining right here right this moment. We haven’t had a lot rain within the Northeast these days, although I do know you’ve been having loopy, loopy rain within the Pacific Northwest.
A. It is rather, very moist.
Q. Looking the window right this moment, I used to be considering: How do birds keep dry, anyway? There may be at all times a query in regards to the birds; I’ve infinite questions on them.
A. They’ve bought, luckily, very good oil glands, and so they simply coat themselves with a sheen of oil and a lot of the rain simply beads proper off of their again and rolls off.
Q. Sensible chook—or well-built birds.
The corvids—the crows, the ravens. I really like these birds, and contemplate it a deal with when a flock of crows come calling or a raven leaves its distinctive tracks within the snow.
I suppose I’ve to ask the boring query first: Who’s who? How can we inform crow and ravens aside?
A. The raven is a a lot greater cousin of the crow. They’re in the identical genus (Corvus), and so they’re intently associated and share loads of traits due to that. However the voice is the simplest attribute. Should you can hear them, the crow is especially going to caw, and the raven goes to quark, and drip like a faucet and bark like a canine, and make plenty of different kinds of noises.
A. Being about twice the dimensions, and having a couple of 4-foot wingspan, the raven actually dwarfs the crow once you see them aspect by aspect. Its tail can also be extra formed like a diamond, and it’s bought extra of a beard round its throat from its lanceolate feathers there.
Q. I really feel like I see crows in numbers, and ravens in onesies and twosies. Is that an incorrect assumption, or a attribute?
A. That’s fairly attribute. Ravens and crows each mate and type monogamous, lifelong pair bonds, however the raven rapidly kicks its child out of the territory and the pair patrols that territory. (Laughter.) You sometimes simply see the pair.
Q. Is the raven our largest songbird?
A. It’s the most important songbird on this planet. Technically it’s a songbird due to complicated throat musculature that it has.
Q. It has a syrinx?
A. All birds have a syrinx. It has a junction field there between the 2 branches of the bronchi that go to the lungs, and it’s the place the voice is produced. However the factor that the songbirds have that the others don’t are very complicated muscle tissues that wrap round that syrinx in order that it could actually warp and pull and stretch in so some ways to make such a variable quantity of noise.
Q. Attention-grabbing. The subheading of the e book “Items of the Crow” reads, “How Notion, Emotion, and Thought Permit Sensible Birds to Behave Like People.” Quite a few instances as I used to be studying the e book I used to be flashing on a Nationwide Geographic collection from a number of years in the past known as “Monkey Thieves” in regards to the troupes of rhesus macaque monkeys of Jaipur, India, and considering these corvids remind me of these monkeys! (Laughter.)
In reality within the e book you do be aware a number of elements of avian cognition seen in these birds that scientists had thought for a very long time solely people and a few monkeys possessed–like perception, as an example.
A. Perception has at all times been one of many hallmarks of primates. The concept right here is which you could have a look at an issue and intuit the answer, mainly see the steps which are required to resolve this downside. So think about meals hanging from a string, or buried in a tube you can not attain. You would possibly begin considering, “How can I place that tube, or might I exploit a software to get at that meals that’s in there?”
Monkeys in fact will resolve that downside, however crows do as nicely. Relying on the species, some, like the New Caledonian crow would style a software to get that meals out—and so they do it virtually immediately once they see the issue.
Others would possibly drop issues into water to lift the extent and float meals as much as them, or use different kinds of superior methods to get on the answer to an issue. (Above, New Caledonian crow making a hooked software from straight piece of wire.)
Q. Wonderful. You additionally say within the e book that they are often observers of physique language and the intent of different people, or different creatures.
A. We did some experiments right here with our American crows that dwell right here in Seattle, and so they’re fairly tame right here. You may sometimes get fairly near them within the metropolis. However for those who lunge at them and even for those who simply have a look at them as you strategy, they’re a very completely different chook. They’ll stand away, they’ll transfer away; they perceive that you’re paying them some consideration and subsequently it could be good or it could be unhealthy, however they’re not going to take the danger.
Q. Till the Nineteen Sixties, you write, birds have been considered simpletons by scientists, like that expression “birdbrain.” You don’t assume birdbrain is a slur, do you? (Above, one other video instance of birds’ ingenuity in utilizing “instruments.)
A. It’s a praise of the best order, to make sure.
Q. In among the corvids, their brains are notably giant for his or her physique dimension.
A. It’s essential to know that it’s relative to their physique dimension. The mind of a crow is in regards to the dimension of your thumb, however the chook solely weighs lower than a pound. So it’s a big mind relative to its physique dimension. Examine it to one thing like an ostrich—which is the opposite excessive for a chook. A really large physique, however in all probability not the brightest chook on the market. However crows and ravens, their brains are far more for his or her physique dimension on line with what we’d contemplate the small monkeys to have. They’re actually extra like a primate by way of the quantity of brainpower they will carry to an issue.
Q. Mammals and birds each hint again to identical reptilian mind—we’ve a standard ancestry, don’t we?
A. That’s the one level we attempt to make within the e book. Among the belongings you see and the way you interpret them do appear improbable. Nevertheless it all comes again to the similarity we’ve in not solely our brains, however the specific nerve cells in our brains—the transmitters that permit us to speak between nerve cells within the mind and type complicated reminiscences. That each one goes again to this reptilian heritage that mammals and reptiles and birds all share.
Q. So attention-grabbing. Did eating regimen—or does eating regimen—need to do with how developed sure of the corvids’ brains have turn out to be? As a result of they love meals, don’t they? (Laughter.)
A. It’s concerned, and so they’ll do something to get at meals.
It’s virtually to flip that round a bit: As a result of they’ve a big mind in addition they need to seize loads of power each day. So that they need to have a high-quality eating regimen, or at the very least loads of no matter they’re consuming.
The mind is the costliest organ within the physique for us in addition to every other vertebrate. It takes a ton of power, and when you’ve got an enormous one, you’re sacrificing the necessity to do different issues as an alternative of getting meals. You’re sacrificing that and buying and selling it off with the flexibility to do issues very effectively with that mind.
Q. We’ve been speaking about ravens, and crows, and so they produce other relations just like the jays. Have they got related diets, or eat distinctive issues?
A. They’re very completely different. I might say that inside the corvids typically, and there are about 140 species there, some are excessive specialists. The pinyon jay, for instance, eats primarily pine seeds. It shops pine seeds by way of to the autumn to gas its economic system all winter and spring. Different birds just like the raven and generalists, and so they’ll eat something that strikes or lies round too lengthy (laughter)—they’re going to eat it.
Some are very versatile in eating regimen, and others are very specialised. The attention-grabbing factor is that specialization has pushed some elements of the mind of those birds to be unimaginable—just like the pinyon jay I discussed has to recollect the place it places all these seeds. So it has a really giant hippocampus, a part of its mind that’s liable for spatial reminiscence.
The raven has bought to resolve plenty of completely different issues and determine plenty of completely different meals out, so it has a big common forebrain.
Q. You write in “Items of the Crow” that everybody at all times has a crow story, and I believe once you go to cocktail events all people needs to inform you theirs.
Q. (Laughter.) Reasonably than inform you that I wished to ask about one other corvid I appear to draw loads, the blue jay—not an uncommon chook in my rural spot. One among my peculiarities amongst many is that as a result of nature at all times cleans its plate, I waste nothing—together with mice from traps within the cellar or barn or shed. I simply put them outdoors, and by the subsequent morning somebody takes it away.
The opposite day I tossed one out onto the garden, and went inside, and inside minutes one thing caught my eye, and it was a blue jay that got here and stabbed on the mouse and pushed it round at it for a minute, then lifted off and left with it. I didn’t notice they have been omnivores or carrion eaters.
A. I might say even essentially the most specialised seed eaters—and the blue jay is towards that line, and focuses on acorns for essentially the most half. However even these which are specialised within the corvids, they’ll at all times take matter like that. They’ll take a small mouse, a small chook, an egg, a small snake or frog. Once more sort of getting again to your first level in regards to the high quality of the eating regimen, and that’s excessive power, excessive fats and protein that’s coming in with a small animal like that. That actually helps them meet their energetic wants.
Q. Final winter I noticed a primary with the blue jays once more, once they pecked light-colored latex paint off my entrance porch and would disappear with items of paint. And eggshells as nicely, which I put out for them—inside moments, they decide them up and fly away with them. Have they got a crop the place they will stash issues, or a pouch?
A. The blue jay’s bought what we name an expandable throat, which may maintain a few acorns. Once you get into one thing like the Clark’s nutcracker, they’ve a particular pouch that’s an area beneath their tongue that opens up like a pelican’s pouch, and so they can put 150 or so pine seeds in that factor and fly off with it.
So inside the corvids you see these completely different variations to their alternative ways of life, and once more the blue jay is extra common—so it hasn’t dedicated all the best way to a throat pouch, nevertheless it’s actually bought some elasticity there to assist it carry an enormous load.
Q. The casual verb “rook”–which means to take cash from somebody by fooling or dishonest them—and it’s additionally the title for a species of corvid. No coincidence, appropriate?
A. I feel it’s positively associated, sure. (Laughter.)
Q. There’s a chapter within the e book known as “Delinquency.” (Laughter.) Let’s speak about that slightly.
A. The rook is a quite giant corvid, form of midway between a raven and a crow in dimension that lives in northern Europe. It’s intently tied to agricultural lands. It probes round for worms, for essentially the most half. However they’re very eager on getting meals and hiding it, and preserving it hidden from others. They attempt to deceive others by way of the place they put meals for later use. I might guess that they in all probability stole issues that have been laying across the farm—not simply vegetation, however shiny issues as nicely. That may have led to that saying.
Q. As I discussed, there’s a chapter within the e book known as “Delinquency,” and an exquisite anecdote about windshield wipers, and delinquent crows.
A. It’s not an remoted incident. The attention-grabbing factor is that evidently corvids have slightly little bit of a penchant for windshield wipers all all over the world. Out right here within the Northern Cascades, I bought a name from the Nationwide Park Service that was involved with campers there. They have been having their windshield wipers stolen whereas they have been mountain climbing or sleeping, and so they have been afraid that individuals would have an accident in the event that they bought of their automotive and didn’t notice their wipers have been gone and hit a wet day like right this moment.
They discovered that it was a raven that was stealing these windshield wipers (laughter), and so they had no concepts why, or what number of birds have been concerned. My daughter and I went up there to begin catching the ravens and tagging them and seeing who was collaborating, and possibly determining why they have been doing this.
Lengthy story brief: It was a pair of ravens that lived proper round this customer middle that was the perpetrator, and the parents on the park had already named it Hitchcock, and so they have been involved once more with the injury it was doing.
We tried to make use of its large mind to our benefit, and we captured the chook, Hitchcock and its mate. We captured them in a parking zone the place automobiles are weak to having their windshield wipers taken, and we banded the chook proper on a windshield.
A. That’s an uncomfortable factor for a raven. They’re being held by us. Sometimes we attempt to be as calm and hold the birds in the dead of night as a lot as doable, however we didn’t this time. We let him look full-on on the windshield the entire time we have been placing a band on his leg and measuring him, and tagging him for our scientific use later. After which we let him go. However we hoped that he would type a fancy reminiscence of that unhealthy factor—that man holding me, and a windshield wiper and being on this space—and cease messing with windshield wipers from then on.
And certainly the habits declined. It doesn’t happen now in any respect, and people birds are nonetheless round. We’ve been capable of make the most of the birds’ mind to show it what’s not acceptable on this setting, and permit the chook to dwell there and hold different ravens which may decide up the behavior from coming in as nicely.
The opposite different was simply to kill the chook and take away it.
Q. And folks do this; they get infuriated with birds and destroy them.
A. There are different options, and this was an instance.
Q. You stated the birds are nonetheless there. How lengthy do crows and ravens dwell?
A. The longest on report are someplace within the 15- or 20-year vary, as a result of you need to have a chook banded to observe it, and actually know its actual age. Should you do the calculations based mostly on their annual charge of mortality, which could be very low—lower than 5 p.c—actually there are some birds on the market which are 20, 30 or possibly even 40 years previous on the market within the wild.
Q. Wow. With the windshield-wiper kleptomania, you stated it’s not simply that one incident?
A. It’s been reported in a number of nationwide parks within the West. It’s been reported in Australia with a unique species there. For some cause, these birds actually like rubber. Perhaps the pliable nature is sort of like an animal pores and skin, and so they tug at it—and that’s one thing that they discover presumably resulting in meals, or that they discover attention-grabbing or stimulating to the touch. We’re probably not positive why they do it.
Q. I’m at all times wowed by tales about crows’ potential for facial recognition. Can we speak about Dick Cheney for a minute? (Laughter.)
A. That is humorous. It was an experiment we devised, as a result of every time we research the birds round right here, we climb to their nests to band their infants. Or we’d catch them to band or tag them. We at all times felt that the birds knew us after that; they acted otherwise. Some have been extra aggressive; some have been extra cautious round us after we had watched them awhile.
So we examined that concept straight. The concept we had was to catch a number of birds—and the best way we catch them is by taking pictures a web over them. In order that’s a scary scenario once more. Once we ran as much as get the birds out of the web to band them and tag them, we wore a selected masks.
In our case, the damaging man wore a caveman’s face. So the birds as they have been having this tough expertise with us, they have been a caveman the complete time.
Our concept was then anyone might put on this caveman’s masks later, and stroll by way of the place we caught birds. We might see if these birds actually reply otherwise, and it wasn’t simply us considering that. As a result of anyone might do it.
We additionally wished to match the response to us sporting a unique masks—and that’s the place the Dick Cheney is available in. (Laughter.)
Dick Cheney was the vp on the time, so his masks was on sale within the web, and I bought a pair. We now stroll round campus as Dick Cheney or the caveman, and see if the birds can inform us aside.
Q. They usually can, sure?
A. They usually can, and so they have been for 9 years now. So that is an instance not simply of wonderful discrimination—to inform these two aside—but additionally social studying. Birds which are capable of inform these masks aside now weren’t even born when the caveman did something flawed.
They’ve realized from seeing others who have been round show that this man is unhealthy.
Q. Apart from being gifted in these methods we’ve been speaking about, crows are inclined to present presents—you talked about shiny objects earlier. Have you ever ever acquired any your self?
A. Personally I’ve by no means gotten a present from a crow, in all probability as a result of I do extra scary issues to them than nice issues to them. However I’ve been gifted by studying about these treasures that many individuals get, and I’ve seen many of those treasures—and I’ve seen video of the birds holding this stuff now.
What it seems like are pretty younger birds in all probability, or maybe birds that don’t have a mate which are courting a human on this case actually as a social associate. Perhaps a mate, however at the very least as a social associate.
They offer issues like trinkets from lockets, or necklaces or keys, or pencil erasers, or shiny rocks and items of glass are quite common that individuals get. It occurs the place both somebody’s performed a crow a very good deed like free it from a entice, or the place they’ve been feeding them persistently.
Q. I like it. I’m so glad you can be a part of me once more to inform us in regards to the presents of the crow.
(Black-and-white illustrations from “The Items of the Crow” are by co-author Tony Angell.)
extra from john marzluff
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MY WEEKLY public-radio present, rated a “top-5 backyard podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper within the UK, started its seventh 12 months in March 2016. In 2016, the present received three silver medals for excellence from the Backyard Writers Affiliation. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station within the nation. Pay attention domestically within the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Jap, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 21, 2015 present utilizing the participant close to the highest of this transcript. You may subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts right here).
enter to win the e book
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Items of the Crow” for a fortunate reader. All you need to do to enter is reply this query within the feedback field beneath, all the best way on the very backside of the web page after the final reader remark:
What’s your crow (or raven) story? As we stated within the interview, everybody appears to have one.
No reply, or feeling shy? Simply say, “Depend me in,” or one thing to that impact, and I’ll, however a reply is even higher. I’ll decide a random winner after entries shut at midnight Monday, December 28, 2015. Good luck to all. (Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate hyperlinks yield a small fee.)