Saturday, April 14, 2007

Crows Show Brand Loyalty

Having now finished IN THE COMPANY OF CROWS AND RAVENS by Jn M. Marzluff & Tony Angell,* have to say I don't think they succeeded in proving their thesis, which was that just as crows adjust their behavior over time to take into account changes in human culture, so too human culture has been influenced in major ways by crows.

Even so, the book is still well worth reading. The best anecdote was an experiment thought up and carried out by one of the authors' eight-year-old daughter. As is well known, crows love french fries. So she put some french fries in a McDonald's bag, and some in a plain brown paper bag. The crows went for the McDonald's bag first every time (IN THE COMPANY, page 225). It's probably not so much that they recognize the logo as that they understand the significance of the whole ensemble -- logo, color of the bag, &c.

For those interested in the topic, Candice Savage's BIRD BRAINS: THE INTELLIGENCE OF CROWS, RAVENS, MAGPIES, AND JAYS [1995; pb. 1997] is not just highly readable but full of beautiful photos (as one would expect from a Sierra Club book). I don't think it's seeped into our consciousness yet that corvids are the smartest of all birds, but this book makes a good case for it. Visually, my favorite image was of a crow scolding a bald eagle from only a foot or so away (page 73); the eagle looks astonished, as if it can't quite believe what it's seeing. I can relate to this one from personal experience; once in a long while I'll see a bald eagle in this area, and most of those times it's being harassed by a number of crows. There's also a bald eagle who likes to perch in a tall tree by the shore in Des Moines, and it always has a cohort of crows in the branches above and behind it fussing at it.

A much deeper look into corvid behavior can be found in Bernd Heinrich's MIND OF THE RAVEN [1999], which carefully documents raven behavior, both from his captive birds and observation in the wild (e.g., on trips to Yellowstone, Greenland, &c). You have to feel sorry for the ravens who went through some of his experiments (like the time he put on a bear suit and went into their cage on all four to see if they'd recognize him. He says they showed great distress, which would pretty much be my reaction if the person who fed me started crawling around on all fours and growling). Still, a fascinating read.

I've not yet been able to bring myself to read SEEKING THE SACRED RAVEN: POLITICS AND EXTINCTION ON A HAWAIIAN ISLAND by Mark Jerome Walters [2006], which I picked up in a bookstore in Hilo last September -- a detailed account of the failed attempt over a decade or so to save the last few Hawaiian Crows from extinction in the wild. While we were on the island I tried to visit the aviary/sanctuary where the last survivors of the species (fifty or so birds) are being bred in captivity, but apparently it's not open to the public. More on this one later.


*book #2660 in my ongoing reading list.

current reading: THE BLACK CAMEL by Earl Derr Biggers [1929], one of the Charlie Chan series.

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