crows have a pr problem -- 8/11/17

Today's selection -- from Birdology by Sy Montgomery. Crows have an undeserved reputation. Generally viewed as ominous and distasteful, they are in fact very clever, and use tools, including using cars to crack the shells of walnuts:

"Through the centuries, many people have found members of the crow family 'as unappealing as cockroaches and as undeserving of sympathy,' writes Candace Savage in her book on crow intel­ligence, Bird Brains. While most people can summon admiration for some of the more colorful members of the family Corvidae -- like the familiar blue jay and the stunningly iridescent, blue-headed green jay of Mexico and South America -- the majority of the family is black, and these species elicit the same suspicions as do black cats, black sheep, and black hats. The preju­dice is reflected in our language: after all, a large group of crows is called a murder; a flock of ravens, an unkindness. The same sentiment is reflected in art: American realist landscape painter Winslow Homer's iconic 1893 Fox Hunt depicts the popular nineteenth-century notion of crows as symbols of doom. In the painting, two low-flying crows harass a red fox as he makes his way over a snowy landscape, while in the background more crows lurk ominously. In life, corvids and canids often team up as hunting part­ners -- ravens lead wolves to prey, which the wolves can open with their teeth so the ravens can partake.

"But in Homer's painting, the crows are chasing and frightening the fox, and the viewer wants to shoo the birds away. And despite the fact that the most famous quote of his writing career is attributed to a raven, even Edgar Allan Poe considered the whole crow family 'grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous.' As we humans do, crows and ravens eat carcasses, though they don't get theirs at the supermarket; farmers are incensed when the birds feed on dead and dying livestock (animals who, if healthy, the farmers would kill and eat themselves). Around the world, crows are accused of harassing livestock, raiding crops, and spreading garbage (who put the garbage there in the first place?). In 1989, the British House of Lords rose in outrage against a proposal that corvids should receive some sort of protection, like other birds. One lawmaker cried out in reply, 'Capital punishment for the thieving and murderous magpie!' (But what if all the ravens -- fellow corvids -- left the Tower of London? Legend warns this would spell the fall of the Kingdom, and to prevent such a catastrophe, the nation employs a royal raven keeper.) ...

Winslow Homer. The Fox Hunt, 1893.

"But as one of the world's top crow researchers, Cornell's Kevin McGowan, points out, 'These birds aren't a gang of nasty villains. These birds are just birds. American crows are among the most family-oriented birds in the world!' But they do suffer from a PR problem, exacerbated by the fact that they feed on the corpses of farm animals and, especially on the battlefield, people. Because of this, crows and their relatives have been associated in much of European mythology with cruelty, death, and disease.

'Even in these large flocks, crows don't represent a health hazard at all,' McGowan stresses. They do not spread disease to people. ... Crows do more good than harm to human food crops. In her book, Savage cites a study from New York State that found only 1 percent of crows' summer diet was field corn. ...

"In the wild, in the laboratory, and in the city, crows and their relatives turn out to be expert tool users. Wild New Caledonian crows of the South Pacific not only use tools, and not only make tools, but will use two different tools in succession if they deem it necessary to accomplish their goal. The birds were caught on tiny, bird borne video cameras using their bills to whittle twigs into hooks and tearing leaves into barbed probes. Sometimes they used one after another to fish a particular bug from a crevice.

"In the city, crows go even further: they manage to use human tools to their ends. ... Walnuts are a crop new to Japan, but lately groves seem to be springing up everywhere. Crows find walnuts tasty and nutritious, but the shells are hard to open. The solution: crows pluck the nuts from the trees, then fly to perch on the traffic signal at the nearest traffic intersection. When the light is red, they fly down and place the nuts in the front of waiting cars. When the light turns green, the cars run them over, cracking the hard shells. When the light turns red again and the cars stop, the crows fly down to safely eat the nutmeats."
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