Wednesday, April 24, 2024

SATURDAY’S CHILD: Murder, she croaked

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Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;

Only this, and nothing more.”

THE VISITOR WHO made the tapping sound that woke American author and poet Edgar Allen Poe was a raven – a species of bird for which the collective noun includes “unkindness” and “conspiracy”. The raven, like the vulture or “corbeau” of Trinidad and “John Crow” of Jamaica, especially too because of its black plumage, croaking call, and diet of carrion or “dead meat”, has long been considered a bird of ill omen and has been not just the subject of poetry but of many myths and legends. In Sweden, ravens are thought to be the ghosts of murdered persons.

Crows, like ravens, are members of the “corvus” family and in medieval days were thought to live extremely long lives and have the ability to predict the future. The English language was even more unkind to crows than to ravens. The collective noun for crows is “murder” – a murder of crows.

This is ironic since recent research has found some crow species to be among the most intelligent animals in the world, not just able to make tools but to design and build them. Using the concept of “encephalisation quotient” (EQ), a measure of relative brain size defined as the ratio between actual brain mass and predicted brain mass for an animal of a given size, crows have an EQ that is close to many non-human primates. They are high up in the rankings – right after bottlenose-dolphins and chimpanzees.

Wherever we have lived in the Caribbean, and that includes Trinidad, Barbados, Belize and Antigua, the knocking of crows against our window panes, their shrill and insistent call for my wife Indranie to come out and feed them, and their following her around the yard demanding sustenance, has been a feature of our lives. And not only crows – doves and kiskadees too.

While kiskadees are large, tyrant flycatchers, they are not limited to flies and are really omnivorous, but their tyranny knows no bounds. One morning in Belize when we had slept pretty late and were in the kitchen, me huddled over my coffee and Indranie about to put some bread in the toaster, this kiskadee started knocking on the glass window pane. When we moved to the bedroom, it started to knock on that window as well. We felt so sorry for the bird that Indranie went outside and scattered bread to all the waiting doves and crows as well.

In Diego Martin, in the foothills of the Northern Range, where we now live, Indranie strung up a “bird feeder” meant for the busy hummingbirds and bananaquits (which never quit their quest for sweetness). She makes batches of sugar-water or syrup for them and the territorial hummingbirds, when in residence, chase away the other hummingbirds as well as the bananaquits. Until the crows came. They have now taken over the feeder.

What is incredible is that the beaks of hummingbirds and bananaquits are designed to suck up nectar and pierce flowers. The feeder is designed for them and not crows but somehow the crows have worked out that when you’re thirsty and cannot afford a red Solo soft drink or “Chubby” the next best thing is a red bird feeder.

What is not as commonly known is that in addition to using and making tools, crows are smart enough to have a wry sense of humour. In an article in the Berkeley Planet, Are Crows Smarter Than We Thought, Joel Eaton wrote that zoologist Carolee Caffrey “has watched crows in Encino land on wires above a road, drop pecans onto the pavement, and not fly down to inspect or retrieve them until a car had passed. The inference is that the crows know what will happen to a nut when a car runs over it, and take advantage of traffic to get at the tasty contents.”

A research group questioned that conclusion, saying they had found that crows were as likely to drop walnuts or pecans on the road whether there were cars on it or not. Eaton concluded, however, “But I suspect Caffrey may be right. These birds are not just smart. Read, say, Bernd Heinrich on ravens, and you begin to believe they may have a twisted sense of humour.

It would be just like a crow to decide to thwart the researchers: ‘Okay, now, just lay off the walnuts until those guys with the binoculars are gone’.” In our case, we don’t pay them enough to make tools. They work for crumbs.

• Tony Deyal was last seen laughing at some crow puns like “What kind of crows always stick together?” Velcrow; and “Where do crows go to get drunk?” A crow-bar.

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