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Friday, February 4, 2011

Interesting Crow article

by Jamie Lutton:

In the New York Times this last Tuesday, February 1st, 2011,in the Science section, there was a good article about the sub-species of crow found in a part of Australia, the New Caledonia crow, that is even brighter than the average crow. The authors of the article also pointed out that this is where crows first evolved, then radiated out from to settle the whole world. Crows are now found on very continent, except for Antarctica; and flourish wherever they are found.

The article outlined the habits of these crows, in particular how they raised their chicks to maturity. These crows are known for their exceptional tool making ability; this ability, from careful field research, is clearly taught, not innate. These crows spend years teaching their chicks how to shape and use tools with their beaks,  how to gather food in the wild, and they feed their young long after they reach a mature size.  These crows used their beaks like hands, and that they were very versatile in shaping tools, even more so than ordinary crows. They have intricate tool making ability that surpassed that observed of chimpanzees and dolphins .

Perhaps, like our ancestors who came from Africa 100,000 years ago, these crows will displace the 'ordinary' bright crows we see around us. We displaced the Neanderthals, and Homo Erectus that had occupied Europe and Asia before us.  It would only take a jump in the technology of the crows, so that they could out-compete regular crows.

I did learn from this article that crows do not 'need' hands; I had speculated in an earlier post that that was all they needed to take over. Genetic tweaking by us, perhaps  in some far off time, to give them an opposable thumb..  The author of this article had observed that  the beaks of the New Caledonia  were quite good enough, to shape and make the complicated tools that they used to extract grubs from trees.


It would be very interesting to see what this sub-species does, in the next two or three million years, if mankind but gives them room on Earth to grow and change. I had written before that the crow language, poetry and songs would be worth knowing; just by watching the Seattle crows in my neighborhood.. Perhaps this species would also someday look at the stars, and wonder, as we have, about creation. It would be good to give them their chance..

This morning, I was on my way to my business partner's shop, when I had my head dive-bombed by a anxious crow.  I had not put any treats down yet.  He perched in a nearby tree, and stared down at me. The crows like to stare down at me, and make remarks. I try to copy those remarks, in the same tone, to see what they will do.  To tease them, I put the treats on top of a slippery, tilted recycling bin, so that when my head bopper landed on it to take a treat, he slid off.  The crows are so smart that, when you give them treats regularly, they get in the habit of complaining about the quantity, the quality, and the frequency of the goodies.

These crows are not even remotely domesticated.  They view their treats as their due. I suppose if I had experience with monkeys or other primates, I would not have been surprised at this behavior. I understand monkeys at temples in India often act like this; that the offerings to them are their due.

This afternoon, I got a digital camera I got as a gift to work, so tomorrow I will start to take pictures of these crows, and their gyrations to get my attention, and to get me to throw them a treat, instead one of their friends.  This camera has a movie function, if I am lucky, I will be able to capture the crazy dives and swooping they do, when they are showing off for each other. I have never seen such purposeful, bonkers flying; one of my favorite maneuvers to watch is when one of them decides at the last minute to abort a landing near a treat, and and they back up and glide in a totally different direction; a given crow might do this over and over, judging that I am standing too near the tasty treat I have put out for them.   The flight pattern a crow will perform has to be seen to be believed.

I did prank the crows today. I wanted to see how far they trusted glass.  My shop has a picture window, and one of my obese shop cats sits in the window, and watches the world go by.  I put dog biscuits, the treat I usually give the crows, right outside the window.  An average bird would notice the glass, shrug, and take the treat.  Not these crows. They were sure it was some sort of trap.  Seven or eight crows gathered on the telephone wire that ran over my shop and just in front of it, cawing, and looking at the treats. If I put the treats on the railing, a few inches further out. they would come down and speedily carry them off. But not from the window sill, as there was a big fat cat on the other side. They just could not do it, these brave crows. And they cawed at me for putting the treats there, where they just - couldn't  - go.  And, of course, my obese, elderly black and white cat was enjoying all of this, curled up in the window and looking out at the birds, who would land on the railing, look at the treats, then fly away.. I am sure he was giving the birds The Look, and they just could not bring themselves to believe in glass, somehow. 

After a while, I had pity on the birds, and scooped up the treats, and threw them out for them in the street.

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