Crows

 

(This 989th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 7, 2010.)

 

Crows are the ornithological equivalent of squirrels: one minute you love them, the next minute you hate them. One thing about both: they are very smart. Squirrels are too much for many of us who feed birds.

 

But crows are even smarter. If you have any question about how smart they are, watch the YouTube video. In that 41-second sequence a crow tries to lift some food out of a vertical tube with a stiff wire. Failing to raise the food, the bird pulls the wire back out of the tube and bends it into a J-shape. With this hook it easily solves its problem.

 

It turns out that this activity was part of a larger story as told by Alex Kacelnik, an Oxford University Professor of Behavioural Ecology. Two crows native to New Caledonia were involved: a female the researchers named Betty and an older male they named Abel.

 

Abel and Betty had been working with both straight wires and hooked wires and the birds knew that the hooked wire worked to get the desired object. But in this experiment Abel had grabbed the hook from Betty and flown off to another part of the aviary. Left to her own devices, Betty accomplished the remarkable feat.

 

My wife didn't believe this story until I showed her the video. Her response: "You didn't tell me it was a female crow."

 

Mike Olek, director of Messinger Woods Wildlife Care and Education Center, wrote in the center newsletter recently about his experience that places a local crow in the intellectual league of that Oxford bird. Olek described first how he released in small groups the young crows that had been raised at the Center. This way, he says, "The first group would scatter and be called back by the remaining caged birds. This allowed me to leave food and water out to soften their release. After about a week, the first batch would learn enough about the neighborhood to show the ropes to each of the following weekly releases."

 

But one of these released crows played a special role. "One day while delivering a tray of food to the still captive crows, I was outsmarted by one who always exhibited a kind of jokester mentality. We had named him Little John. While I was in the cage feeding on that day, Little John had apparently been somewhere in the nearby trees. Instead of flying down to where I could see him coming, he must have flown next to the garage and walked along the wall back to the cage. The bottom of the cage door had an eyehook as one of three locking mechanisms. The instant I heard the metallic sound, I dashed for the door, but it was too late. Little John had successfully locked me in with the other crows. He stood there making a cackling sound that I could only identify as possible crow laughter. My wife rescued me after hearing me shouting for help. Not to sound dumber than a crow, but he locked me in one other time before I got wise and changed the locking system."

 

Reader Pat Monihan of Tonawanda wrote a few days ago to ask about the crows she sees flying south toward Buffalo in the evening and returning each morning. "I have heard that they are going to Delaware Park," she added.

 

Indeed those crows are flying to and from their winter roost in Delaware Park and Forest Lawn Cemetery where many thousands of them gather. In twenty minutes one recent afternoon I counted 361 heading southwest over my Amherst home toward the same location. And some time ago another reader reported a stream of crows flying across the Niagara River toward that site.

 

Passing through the area a few years back, I was stuck by the noise of the birds in the trees along the north edge of the cemetery.

 

Why do the crows roost like this? We can only speculate. Some observers suggest that they do so as a refuge against danger similar to the way fish form defensive schools. But great horned owls, like sharks, are thus assured easy meals.-- Gerry Rising