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A Conversation with a Crow

I was watching all the bird activity on my feeders recently, specifically noting the hierarchy of birds getting to feed while others were waiting their turn. While I was checking out the action I suddenly noticed another bird, a crow, looking my way.

"Hey!" I called to the crow. "Are you watching me?" Incredibly, the crow answered. "Yes, people watching is my hobby. I find human behavior both fascinating and complex." "That’s funny," I said. "Here I am observing birds and you’re observing humans." "Yes, it is," she said. "Name’s Janice, by the way. And, you’re Joanie." "Wow, how did you know that?" I asked. "Well, that’s what the other birds call you," she said with a chuckle. "Actually, it has to do with the size of my neocortex. That’s your forebrain, in case you were wondering." "Yes, I know what it is," I said a bit annoyed. "I know that the corvid family—jays, crows, ravens, magpies--have a larger forebrain than most other birds." "Very good!" Janice said. "Did you know that crows’ brains have 1.5 billion neurons, as many as some monkey species?" "Well, no," I mumbled. "Ah!" she continued. "A 2014 study showed that New Caledonian crows, rooks, and European jays can solve an Aesop’s Fable challenge, dropping stones into a water-filled tube to bring a floating bit of food within reach, something human children generally can’t do until age seven. We crows were the first nonhuman animals to solve the task. This demonstrates convincingly that crows and probably other advanced birds have sensory awareness, in the sense that they have specific subjective experiences that they can communicate. Besides crows, this kind of neurobiological evidence for sensory consciousness only exists in humans and macaque monkeys. Scientists have long known that crows and ravens have unusually large forebrains, but unlike mammals’ forebrains—the neocortex—corvids’ do not have the six connected layers thought to produce higher intelligence. But, ours do have connectivity patterns…suggestive of the neocortex."

"Wow," I said, my eyes glazing over. "Are you getting this?" Janice asked. "Or, should I slow down?" "I get it, I get it," I said, feeling a bit inadequate.

"Not only that," Janice continued. "We can remember human faces. You may have heard about the experiment involving a group of people that fed crows on a regular basis. They became familiar with the crows and then suddenly, they showed up one day wearing masks and attempted to capture them. The crows remembered their masked faces, avoided them and gave alarm calls to let all the other crows know that these were not good people. Not only did this continue, but crows born later on also somehow knew that people wearing these masks were not to be trusted. Many years later, these crows still held a grudge." "Yes," I said. "Well, that’s totally understandable. I wouldn’t forget either especially if the masks were scary." Janice looked at me out of the corners of her dark brown eyes for a long moment. "Okay," she said. "We are talking about birds here. Criminy."

Janice busied herself with some light preening. She distributed a coating of oil over her primary feathers by first grooming the oil gland at the base of her tail and then running her beak over her feathers. She then shook her whole body to get all her feathers back into place. Then, as she scratched the top of her head with her claw something sparkled. It was just then that I noticed it. Janice was wearing a toe ring. A stunning gold band with a bright red ruby that fit over, well, three of her toes. "Oh, my God!" I said. "Where did you get that beautiful ring?" "Oh, I found it," she said. "I know that humans place a high value on shiny things and we crows do as well. We are also gift givers, like people." "I know," I said. "I’ve read that crows will sometimes leave gifts for people that feed them. There was a story about a little girl in Seattle that used to feed the crows in her yard and discovered that an odd little trinket was left in the yard right after she fed them. She saved her "gifts" and ended up with quite a collection of buttons, screws, paper clips, earrings, colorful rocks and glass, a heart-shaped charm, all kinds of stuff. Then, there was the man that helped some baby crows that had fallen out of their nest. He gave the babies food and water. Soon after he found a gift of a spruce twig woven through a pull tab from a can of soda. And, then the same thing the next day. Not only a gift, but handmade!"

"Oh, I know," said Janice, shaking her shiny black head. "I’ve heard those stories, but they’re not unusual. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy observing human behavior and this seems to have been an extraordinary year for you people. Usually, you’re busy going here and there, but this year people have been out doing more walking, hiking, outdoor activities. And, the lines of people waiting to get into grocery stores. What’s with that?" "Yes," I said. "It has been a difficult year for us humans. It’s given us time to think about what really is most precious to us." I handed Janice a peanut which she took readily, cracking the shell and tossing the peanut down her throat. I handed her another which she carefully took from my hand and cached between two rocks. "That it?" she said noticing there were no more peanuts. "That’s it for now," I said smugly. "There might be more where that came from later." "Okay, thanks!" she said. "I won’t forget it." She took off and later that day she returned carrying a paper bag which she dropped at my feet.

"Well," she announced. "After careful observation I’ve determined what is most precious to you humans." "Really?" I said, eyeing her sparkly toe ring. "And," she said. "I think you’ll be providing me with a steady supply of peanuts from now on after receiving this gift. Enjoy!" With that she flew off, a smile on her face.

I quickly ran into the house, excitedly opened the bag, and there it was. A roll of toilet paper.

Bless the crows ~ Joanie and Annie

Conversation with a Crow


I was watching all the bird activity on my feeders recently, specifically noting the hierarchy of birds getting to feed while others were waiting their turn. While I was checking out the action I suddenly noticed another bird, a crow, looking my way.

"Hey!" I called to the crow. "Are you watching me?" Incredibly, the crow answered. "Yes, people watching is my hobby. I find human behavior both fascinating and complex." "That’s funny," I said.

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East Bay Times Article


Attracting birds and bees to our yards and gardens is simple, if we provide what they like and need.

Joanie Smith, owner of East Bay Nature in Walnut Creek, says there are five essential elements for success — water, food, cover, nesting and safety.

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