Last week I wrote a post on social media about Ben, the crow with a bent foot, in which I mentioned that Marvin and Mavis seem to allow him to get first dibs on the nuts and kibble I put out in the morning.
I immediately started to worry that I’d over-sentimentalized their behaviour.
Crows, much as I love them, are not generally known for their charitable works.
It’s true that they’re extremely loyal to their family members (see George and Mabel: A Love Story.) At night they’re very co-operative and social when they come together at the roost for mutual protection, information and general fun.
But, during the day, crows stick pretty closely to their own territory — usually half a city block or so — and defend it against other crow visitors.
So why do Marvin and Mavis put up with Ben’s intrusions? I have a couple of theories, none of which include pure crow altruism on their part.
But first, the story of Ben, as far as I know it.
I noticed him last spring when he started following me on dog walks. I assumed he must be a local crow with a recently sustained injury, as I’m sure I’d have noticed his badly deformed foot if he’d been like this for a while.
He would pop up on my walks and, while doing my best to avoid conflict with other crows, I’d try to slip him a few peanuts.
In so doing, I was contravening my own rules of Peanut Diplomacy, but …
As BC’s terrible fall weather made international news, with floods and even a small hurricane, I worried about all the birds — but especially Ben.
I could imagine him out there, clamped to a branch with only one functional claw while the rest of him was flung about in the gales.
Sometimes I wouldn’t see him for a few days after a big storm and I’d think he’d been swept away, but then there he’d be again.
That one good foot must be extra, extra strong.
By then he’d started showing up at my house. I think his territory is a block or so away, but he must have a line of sight to see when I first poke my head out of the back door in the morning.
A picture of Ben looking at me from the roof early one wet morning became the print, Frazzled 2/Too.
The fact that Ben was now showing up for peanuts in Marvin and Mavis’s territory was a further breach of Peanut Diplomacy protocol.
But that face … what to do?
So, back to my theories of why Marvin and Mavis seem to have come to terms with Ben’s visits.
Theory One: Crows Are Trainable
I decided to see if I could try keep both Ben and M&M happy by trying my hand at some rudimentary crow training techniques. I mean, not much else was going on, so why not?
Ben’s great advantage is that he’s willing to come for snacks while I’m still standing nearby. Like other crows with injuries (e.g. George Brokenbeak) the risk/ benefit calculation of getting close to people shifts more into the “worth the risk” side of the ledger as it gets harder for them to get their own food.
I decided to use this fearlessness “superpower” in Ben’s favour.
When the snacks go out in the morning, several sets of crow eyes are watching. Marvin or Mavis usually sound the breakfast call from their favourite Hydro pole.
Normally M & M would immediate swoop in and summarily scatter the competition — but I found if I stood right beside the peanuts and fixed them with a stern look and said “wait” in my best dog training voice, it bought Ben and his mate time to stuff a few peanuts and kibble in their beaks and take off.
After a couple of weeks of this everybody seemed to have got the hang of things.
Occasionally a tail tweak from Mavis is needed to reinforce the “taking turns” etiquette, but generally Ben and friend seem to know when their time is up.
Theory Two: Not Worth the Hassle
Another risk/benefit calculation, this time on the part of Marvin and Mavis, might be further explanation for their forbearance.
In spite of his limping gait, Ben is fierce. If attacked by other crows I’ve seen him respond with impressive force. Perhaps Marvin and Mavis, knowing their food supply is generally secure, figure it’s not worth the risk to life and wing to take him on.
The M’s know, after all, that they can always come back later in the day, when things are less competitive, for a quiet visit and some extra peanuts.
Both theories, I guess, boil down to “crows are smart,” which is hardly news. I do know that I’ve spent countless hours watching crows, and the one thing I’ve learned is that they always have another surprise tucked up their wing feathers.
Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on how Ben makes out, and how long we can keep the Golden Age of Breakfast Co-operation going.
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