Holy Crow!

Holy Crow!

I crawled into bed after an especially exasperating, work-filled Sunday, flipping through the television channels trying to find something at least quasi-intelligent to watch, as is one of my usual wind-down mechanisms.

What I stumbled across on the tube was not only “intelligent”, it was about intelligence – intelligence in those always-circling-above, loud, obnoxious, black birds I so disliked…




Dr. David Suzuki, a revered Canadian scientist and environmentalist, has hosted a superb documentary, The Nature of Things, for three decades. I hadn’t seen his award-winning show for at least the last two.

This episode was about half over as I saw the camera panning in on a small crow in some remote, tropical location. I wasn’t immediately aware it was David Suzuki’s show and was about to continue working the remote control when I heard the narrator exclaim, “only two other animals in all of nature, elephants and higher primates, make, and use tools, to survive .”

I was now captive as I began thinking, “how could this little bird-brain on my screen possibly make and use tools to survive”?

My answer was delivered in the next few moments as this magnificent creature picked up a small branch in its beak and started breaking stems off until there was only the main stem and the base of a little offshoot remaining, thereby creating a “hook”. He then started fervently digging into a tiny hole in the limb he was perched on to extract some juicy insect which he then devoured.

Holy Crow!

What followed was even more amazing…

The scientists, who were filming this wonder of nature, brought many of these amazing specimens back to their laboratory to conduct experiments.

In the first experiment, there was a small, long cage placed on a table, with only front access. A small piece of crow food, fruit presumably, was pushed to the very back. The crow could not get to the food with its beak.

A second, larger cage was placed nearby, where a long stick was placed in it, but also in the back where the crow could not grab it.
A short stick was then placed on the table in front of that cage.

The crow was allowed to fly into the room. He surveyed the food first, poking his beak into the front of the small cage to quickly learn that he couldn’t reach his reward. He then hopped over to the large cage and spied the long stick but he couldn’t get to that either.
Looking around, he saw the short stick next to the large cage and stood there, for a few seconds, looking, as though a plan was formulating. And it was!

He picked up the short stick in his beak and dragged the long stick close enough so that he could reach it with his beak. He dropped the short stick, picked up the long one and wobbled over to the small cage when he performed the same feat, rolling his food close enough so he could snatch and grab it in utter victory!

This blew me away – a feeble-minded crow with cognitive skills!

BUT, what happened next didn’t allow me to unwind at all.

The scientist performing the preceding experiment decided to see if this little critter could do something no other scientist had ever done.

The small cage containing the food and the large cage containing the long stick to get the food, were set up exactly the same way. What changed was that the short stick was now suspended from the ceiling by a string, tied securely in a knot, dangling at the top of the large cage.

Another crow was let into the room. I honestly believed this crow would leave the room a hungry crow. But what will remain forever impressed in my mind, is what happened next.

He immediately landed in front of the food cage, of course. And you probably know what he was thinking.

He then perched himself, as before, in front of the large cage and again, you probably know what he was thinking.

He then spied the small, suspended short stick.

His eyelids closed, as if in prayer asking the Universe for help. Seconds later, he seemed to receive his answer.
He directly flew to a spot on the top of the large cage, where he cocked his little bird head to the left and to the right for a moment, studying this obstacle. He then began methodically to unravel the knot, eventually undoing it, flying down to snatch the long stick that, in the end, he used to drag his meal from the back of the small cage to his beak.

Holy Crow squared! He planned and executed three complicated, cognitive steps in a matter of a minute. I doubt most human beings could have figured that out in less time, if at all!

My education continued. I learned that crows make 250 CAH! sounds, each meaning something different. To me, they always sounded like a single, abrasive CAH! These are meant for the crow community at large, informing their fellow flockers of things like danger. One CAH! can mean a cat is on the prowl. Another, a hawk overhead.

The immediate family has a private vocabulary, making soft little rattly sounds. I’ve never been that close to a crow family to hear such interesting chatter.

Crows are very family oriented and the offspring often remain in the nest for 4-5 years helping to feed or teach the young ones, keeping guard and fortifying the nest.

In Japan, crows are consistently outsmarting the citizenry. In crowded urban areas, where balconies are littered with clothelines, the crows undress the thin wire hangers and fly off with their contraband which they use to fortify their nests. The public utilities have a special squad of workers dedicated solely to removing the wire-reinforced nests from utility poles. Seems many major power outages have been caused by the combination of cunning crow and wire hanger. The workers, when interviewed, admitted they were always one step behind the “black scourge.”

Until that evening, I considered crows pretty much the same way. It was only after learning how totally amazing they were that I developed a level of not only respect, but admiration, for them.

Fully awake now, I began to think that my own prejudice about crows was not unlike the prejudice that keeps the world spinning in a seemingly endless cycle of hatred and violence. I even recalled expressing my dislike of the birds to my grandsons as we were sitting out on the patio this summer. Blinded by ignorance and my only experience with them – their CAH –I was now passing my prejudice on to the next generation!

I then wondered, what would the world would be like if every person ‘at war’ had the opportunity to learn amazing and admirable things about their sworn enemy, and to ultimately be left with little choice but to respect, and even like them? To eventually discover that they were in fact, brothers and sisters… much more alike, than different!

I really wonder.

©Rick Beneteau

Holy Crow!

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