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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Prometheus for the crows

by Jamie Lutton

  I have been thinking about crow civilization, and the future of crows. Most species on this planet only last about 8 million years. So, both humans and crows have only a limited time on the Earth, before they die out or some fraction of the whole evolves into something else, if we go by geological history. There are  exceptions to this rule; some few animal and plant species  last for a long time, and beat these odds. But most fade away, to be replaced by others, in about that time.  What with man's impact on the environment, both crows and humans might die out a lot faster than that, though I think we are a tenacious species, able to cling on in concrete and smog and dirt.

        I was feeding a few crows, and considering what their fate as a species might be. I recalled a SF novel by David Brin called The Uplift War, when I was writing this blog post. One of the conceits of his future universe was the humans had 'uplifted', or genetically altered, dolphins and chimpanzees so that they could talk to them, and they could be fully intelligent.  The dolphins sang in a haiku form, using artificial arms we made for them they could strap on. The chimpanzees closely resembled humans, except when they did not - such as in mating habits. Also, in this book, the humans, and their 'client species', had begun to explore planets circling nearby stars. But Brin missed a bet, not uplifting crows or anther bird species in his novels. He, like a lot of SF writers, had not considered the birds, or birdlike aliens, when they wrote. Only a few, like Robert Sawyer, saw the future inhabited by intelligent birds.  Some bird species, like crows, are very close to sentience, by all the studies. I do not think their brains or their larynx need much of a change. And because they are so light, tweaking their genes so their claws have opposable thumbs  might not hinder their gripping power in roosting.  They do not need to sacrifice the skies for speech. It certainly would not be worth it; a crow, knowing that it ancestors could fly, would probably curse us for taking that away.

   I considered what humans could give them that they don't already have. Well, they suffer from a very high infant mortality rate; only about half of their chicks make it to their first year.  And they suffer from tiny
  parasites under their feathers, that make them itch all the time. This is not so different that humans; until the 1880's, when soap became cheap, most humans had some sort of tiny parasite or flea or crab in their hair, or in their clothes, somewhere; the only exception being some particularity well scrubbed rich people.   We could offer the crows flea collars, or good flea baths, and reduce their infant mortality, with perhaps safer pre-built nests and better health care, surgery for broken wings, immunization against disease. Bird flu recently killed millions of crows in this country; local crows have missed the epidemic, so far. If the epidemic had happened with humans, it would have been rated worse than the Black Death.

     .  If you have ever spent much time around crows, the thing that makes them most anxious in their lives is taking care of their young crows, who are very naive, and get killed off easily.  The adult crows often dive bomb humans who get too close to their chicks, who are on the ground learning how to fly.  The young crows get hit by cars, killed and eaten by raptors and cats, and fly into electric wires.

  Besides that,  I don't know what benefits civilization could hold for crows. Cities? A written language?  Longer lives?  Besides ridding the skies of raptors (or giving them a good raptor warning system), fixing broken wings,  flea collars, and health care,  what could we give the crows?   

        I have never seen human so obviously joyful, all the time. And so filled with physical energy, swift, swift, physical joy.   Once you are used to the cawing, it sounds similar to the singing of other birds, but more emphatic, louder. They say I AM HERE over and over. They are constantly living, not worrying, not consumed with any horrors or sadness. They are filled with strong emotions, yes, scolding, angry at times, but mostly joyful.

      If we did "uplift" crows, it would be so that they could escape extinction, in the way humans will have to, by escaping Earth. We, (or perhaps intelligent machines we make), will escape Earth and go to the stars.  If we go ourselves, we might take the crows with us, since they are almost sentient, on their own. Or perhaps so that they could inherit the Earth, for a time, after humans leave it.

     Would they thank us, if they had instead of  ordinary claws, claws with opposable thumbs? I read a remark once by a SF writer, that if cats had opposable  thumbs, they would be firebugs; that is what first put this in my mind. Human beings learned how to make and use fire, before they were humans; firepits in humanoid campgrounds go back almost 3 million years, when we were not completely human yet. If we bred crows who could make tools with their hands, would they first make fires?  I would like to give them their chance; like Prometheus, give them the fire. We should perhaps give them rational speech first, so we can dissuade them from burning down our cities for the fun of it. Though perhaps that is primate thinking; they might not have that urge. Perhaps they would drop trash on people heads to start conversations, or to pick fights, or just to tease us, once they could know us, and know what we really did not like, and do it anyway.

   I fear for the domestic cat, if the crow got smarter.  We would have to have a long talk with the crows about our cats. It might be the end of the outdoor cat.   And what do they need fires for?  The predators they fear do not come from the ground, like our ancestors did; they usually come from above, the raptors in the sky.  Fire would not do them any good against the predators that they face. They do not use tools to fight the predators they face, they use sheer numbers to 'mob' them. Fire would do no good against cats, say.  Unless they were starting over, and had no civilization like ours around to use as reference, the best tool that they could get, that an opposable thumb would make use of, would be to be able to write.  The seduction of being able to record thoughts, songs, epics, histories, would be what humans could offer crows. They have a vast quantity of yet unthought epics, waiting to be written down. They could learn our languages, or we could learn the language they would develop....

        They probably don't need cities, streets (streets!) or other trappings of intelligence that we have, but a real language, then the ability to record the language, might be worth tweaking their nature for.
    That, and a be able devise a good flea collar, or get one from us.

          Someone reading this might think it would be 'terrible' to interfere with the the basic nature of crows.But I am disturbed by their high chick mortality rate.   Why not have a world where their chicks mostly all live to adulthood?  We had a world, up till 200 years ago, where half of our babies died before they were five; it was the aim of every doctor to try and prevent these deaths. We have more or less succeeded, with vaccines and clean tap water, why not the chicks of crows, since they are so intelligent.... though then, we have to talk the crows into having fewer babies, otherwise we will be hip deep in (lovely) crows.

           I can just imagine the urban problems, (everyone would wear a hat they could wash). consider the problem with crow criminals. Most humans can't tell one crow from another; so if we have a 'renegade' crow who is breaking laws* - how could we ever tell him or her from the 'good' crows?  We would then have to have either leg bands, or crow policeman. The mind boggles at a crow policing another crow. They look and act like natural anarchists.
     But, think of the crow poetry we will get to hear.  I would not mind living in that world, a world with intelligent crows. We could make that world, if we wished, in a few generations, with genetic manipulation, an act we already perform when we alter animals to make them better food for ourselves. Instead, making the animal  completely self-aware, which would be a good in itself.

    We have the legend of Prometheus in every language on Earth, for a reason. 
 
   And if I lived then, I would want to invest my money in the manufacture of hats.

   This morning I left my apartment building, and got a half a block away, when I realized that I had forgotten to put a sweater on under my coat. I turned back, but as I did, I could hear the crows cawing at me, anxiously.  When I came out of my apartment, seven flights up, three of them flew by me as I stood on the open leni.  They did so gracefully, cawing at me, saying hello, flying parallel to me, each taking a turn to do so,  then roosting in a nearby tree at the very top. The trees were swaying in the wind; the crows were cawing merrily at me.  They did not approach me closely till I was a good block away, like always, but these three were letting me know that that knew where I lived, and were so glad to see me.  I gave them peanuts today, and today they brought about 20 of their friends.  They cawed at me loudly, some cawing while the others pecked up the peanuts. They never get very close, except to fly over my head to let me know they are near.   I left them enough peanuts for all, but a few sang me all the way to work, and I gave them more peanuts, on the way.

       A few days ago, I did not have any peanuts or dog biscuits on me, and I was leaving a restaurant I had breakfast at. On impulse I saved my leftover toast and jam; wrapped it up in a paper napkin.  I tore up the warm toast and jam, instead of biscuits, and threw that to a few crows.  One crow got a very large piece, a very long piece of warm toast, and flew off, with two crows racing right behind him, trying to take the tidbit away from him. This continued till they disappeared into the distance,around a building. It looked like a regular game between them all. Some of the crows were flying off to hide the toast pieces to eat later, while others were stuffing themselves right there. I decided not to give them toast too often; that it was probably not that good for them. I am actually worried about what they eat; considering that they subsist on rotten garbage, this is foolish.  I really wish I had a back yard, that the crows could come to, and feel safe.  I have read other accounts where people have had backyards, where they got to see baby crows learn to fly, and see the parents tend to them. All I have is the morning streets of Seattle, where both the crows and I have to dodge cars, and other people, while I walk to work.
     
             *Dropping stuff on human heads
            *REALLY getting good at stealing food
            *unscrewing stuff till it fell down
             *practical joking against humans

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