It was during a semi-annual business lunch in Montreal with a Swiss associate that I found myself bemused by his true story of an animal encounter which had changed his life. He described how he and his young wife had been sun-bathing on the beach while vacationing on the French Riviera when their somnolence was broken by someone kicking sand in their faces. It turned out not to be “someone” but “something”; in this case a black and white Magpie displaying an obviously broken leg from which hung the remnants of a once-carefully-taped set of wooden splints. After they had repaired the device, the grateful bird followed them to their quarters, refusing to leave. Clearly, it had known human companionship, but my friends were unsuccessful in locating its owners. And so, having been “adopted” by the patient, they took it home with them to Switzerland where it ended up sharing their kitchen, dining table, bedroom and life. Each morning the Magpie would awaken my friend by gently opening his eye with its beak to peek inside. It had a place at their table and in their hearts while displaying a personality – and a gift for language – which were endearing. Its sense of humor though could be daunting at times, especially when left alone with my friend’s petite wife, upon whom the Magpie delighted in practicing a well thought-out naughtiness, purposely tipping over glasses of water, bowls of bread flour, and then mocking her with its haughty laughter from some safe perch.
Along with crows and ravens, the magpie is a member of the corvidae family, a group of birds possessing a brain representing a weight larger than that of a human when expressed as a percentage of the animal’s total body weight. The forepart of that unique brain is believed to account for its capacity to remember, reason, access past lessons and even mimic the voices and behaviors of other animals and humans. After generations of living alongside humans, corvids have adopted seven key human characteristics according to John Marzluff and Tony Angell who write on the subject: They are language, insight, frolic, passion, wrath, delinquency, risk-taking, and awareness. Their ability to survive severe environmental conditions and abrupt changes in weather and food supply reflects their willingness to share resources and cooperate between groups and individuals, (a virtue humans might do well to emulate). Their complex societies display a commitment to monogamy – they mate for life, although adults who have both lost a mate may tie the knot again – show great devotion to each other and family, and grieve over death.
Over and over again we see evidence that crows, ravens and magpies have learned to read human behavior and anticipate our actions. As a young boy, I learned that when armed with my .22 rifle, the crows behind our barn scattered at the sight of me, although if all I carried was a walking stick of similar general appearance, I could walk to within a stone’s throw.
Inda Drakborg of Sweden became accustomed to throwing feed to the Ravens who rang her doorbell each morning when she was home alone. At other times her angry husband Abbe cursed and threw stones at them. Ready to go to work Abbe would find the windshield of his Mercedes plastered in white, runny excrement. When he traded parking places with his wife, his windshield would still get white-washed, while Inda’s Volvo was untouched.
A clear case of avian “delinquency” plagued National Park rangers at a campground deep in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains when it was discovered that “someone” was removing the rubber inserts from vehicle windshield wipers. The culprit turned out to be a raven named “Hitchcock” and his mate. The hoped-for cure is still being measured, since similar thefts have been detected as far away as Alaska, New Brunswick and Yosemite in California.
One of the most impressive experiments into a corvid’s ability to problem-solve and engage in “tool-making” involved placing a transparent, deep and narrow glass tube where a crow named Betty could see food in a tiny bucket with a handle, well out of reach in its bottom. A piece of straight wire was left within Betty’s reach. When still unable to extract the tidbit, the crow used one foot and its beak to create a hook at one end of the wire, which she was then able to use to snare the basket and lift it out.
All science aside, high on the list of my “100 favorite things” – right up there with soft cotton socks and maple syrup pancakes -- is “the sound of crows on a frosty morning”, an aural phenomenon which never fails to harken back to my carefree days as a Vermont farm-boy.
The author’s purloined French fry clutched in its mouth, a brazen Herring Gull exhibits the adaptability which permits certain birds to thrive on their close relationship with human society.
Al Cooper Photo