It would seem that the local corvids took exception to the title of my “Boring Walks” series and have been pulling out all the stops to prove me very wrong.
Young Chip must have been especially offended, as she’s been starring in her own production of Cirque du Corvid this week.
Remember I said in Boring Walks Part One that Chip is fast and cheeky? It seems that she read that and thought, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
At first I didn’t notice Chip at all. It was Marvin, sitting on the fence and staring intently up at the sky.
So I looked up to see what he was watching …
In all my years of watching crows, I’ve only ever seen this hanging upside routine once before.
But Chip wasn’t JUST hanging around. Oh no.
She hung there for a minute or so and then let go, prompting Marvin to give chase.
That was so much fun, so she did it again. And again.
Looking to see if Marvin is watching
A head tuck and fiddle with the feet
And down she goes
Marvin cannot look away
Chip apparently decided that the “hang and drop” routine was too simple, and added to her routine by clambering, using feet and beak, between the multiple rows of wires.
But with the same end goal — flip, hang, drop and get chased. Woohoo!!
Down on the ground, I was literally gasping at the acrobatic skill. At the same time, I was laughing out loud at her determination to draw Marvin, who was trying to look very dignified, into her vortex of fun and games.
Chip’s family, The Mabels, weren’t even around — it was just her, having a laugh with the neighbours. She often visits the garden when Marvin and Mavis are there. They’re pretty territorial and have spent months trying to chase her off, but they seem less fussed about her presence lately. After all, she is pretty darn entertaining — and way too fast to catch anyway.
Chip’s lesson for me this week — you can just be hanging around, being bored and a bit grumpy — or you can go ahead and make an art form out of it.
A meticulous study recently published by scientists in Leipzig, Germany, concludes that the intelligence of ravens rivals that of the great apes.
Other studies have come to similar conclusions, but this one was especially exhaustive, employing a complex combination of tests designed to measure various aspects of intelligence.
They found, among other things, that four month old ravens have already developed the impressive skill and knowledge of adults, making them incredibly quick learners.
It’s an interesting study in many respects — another step away from older science that assessed all species using, what we are now beginning to see, are very limited human criteria. It was long thought that birds, because of the small size of their brains relative to those of primates, couldn’t possibly be that smart.
Birds and mammals have been travelling down divergent evolutionary paths for lo these hundreds of millions of years. It’s now becoming evident that the mammal/bird development routes may well have ultimately led them to comparable destinations, intelligence-wise. While bird brains are indeed much smaller that our primate ones, it turns out that the many kinds of intelligence are far too complicated to be simply measured in weight and volume.
The German study is also interesting in that it questions the limitation of how valid our human assessment of other species’ intelligence can really be. We inevitably filter the results of our experiments through our particular type of intelligence. The ravens perform the tasks set by the human scientists, but how would humans perform in a test set for us by ravens?
Indeed, it has often occurred to me that I’m proving to be a rather disappointing subject for the ongoing experiment being conducted by our local corvids.
I often see myself reflected in crows and ravens. Not just literally …
… but also in the way I tend to see my own feelings and thoughts reflected back at me. Because I’m not bound by scientific rigour, and because I spend so much thinking about them and watching them, I often lapse into formulating little human-corvid parallels.
Corvids remind me of humans in so many ways — from how we both look sad on wet days to how we care for those we love.
It brings me joy to see these familiar things reflected back at me — but at the same time I realize I really have no idea of what they’re truly thinking and feeling.
They are a deep mystery and that is, in itself, marvellous.
How I’d love to stumble across and old English/Raven dictionary in a thrift shop.
Or be able to take a Conversational Raven online course.
My husband is currently refreshing his Spanish skills using such an app. I can imagine him repeating Spanish phrases in one corner of the house, and me practicing my “knocking call” in another …
As it is, I have just been piecing things together from books and blogs, and from my own limited observations over the years. Lately there have been a group of ravens in our very own neighbourhood, so it’s a thrill to see and hear them on the daily walks with the dog.
Here are a few bits and pieces of video and photography to share with you some of the interesting things I’ve noticed. I’m not, of course, a scientist — so I’m mostly casting about in the dark about the significance of what I see. I’m always thrilled to hear from people who properly study these matters who can fill in the many blanks.
Before we go any further, there are a lot of videos in this post. As they won’t show up in an email, make sure to click on the BLOG POST itself to be able to see them OK.
This is the most common call that I hear ravens make.
It almost seems like an “I’m here. Where are you?” sort of call. The raven in the video above was filmed only a few metres from our house in the tall trees around one of the local schools. The raven seemed to make that call, listen for a distant answering call, and then call again.
Of course, the local crows are not pleased about the newcomers to the ‘hood and spend a lot of time and energy mobbing their larger corvid cousins, trying to get them to “move on.”
That raven call has amazing carrying power. I can hear it from what seems like miles away — over the city noises of traffic, construction, conversation and angry crows. I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m always listening for it, or because it’s at just the right frequency to cut through.
Of course, in the quiet of the mountains it’s easier to hear more subtle raven calls. My favourite one is a kind of “knocking” call that sounds like water dripping into a still pool. Recently I was lucky enough to be out snowshoeing on Mount Seymour and witness the call being made at close quarters.
This raven hung around for a while, making this fabulous sound. Long enough for me to notice that when he or she made it, all of those magnificent throat feathers stick out like an Elizabethan ruff.
It made me wonder … do ravens have that fabulous feather cravat just to add visual splendour to that particular call … or do they make that sound just as an excuse to show off their feathery abundance? Always more questions than answers …
Ruff flaunting raven in mid “knocking” call.
More wondering. Do their feathers stick out like that because they have to somehow puff out their throat and make it taut to create such a hollow, musical sound? It does sound like some sort of percussion instrument.
The raven below, spotted on Mount Washington, is making a slightly different call, more of a hollow wooden sound. You may have to turn the sound up, as s/he was quite far away.
Feather preening, in between performances.
The raven in the next video is making yet another call. I call it the “wow” sound.
My raven vocalist friend.
Me, reflected in the raven’s eye. I love this image because I spend so much time watching, and thinking about, crows and ravens that it seems appropriate for me to be “caught” there.
Some playful muttering and off-camera raven commentary in this video.
Finally our raven pals got tired of being our house band and took off for other adventures.
This last video is a couple of years old, taken near the ski hill parking lot at Cypress Mountain.
This is one of my favourite snippets of raven film. It’s not very good, technically. I took it from a distance with a lot of car park noise in the background and, as usual, no tripod. But I watch it quite often and it always makes me smile. It reminds me of a scene from a Jane Austen novel. The raven couples are doing the rounds at the ball. Social rituals are observed, silent judgements are made, gossip and meaningful looks are exchanged. Meanwhile, at the top of the frame, one young single raven, oblivious to the formalities, plays in the snow.
As you see, I’m still a million miles away from that Raven to English translation program, but it’s a lot of fun to work towards it.
Marvin and Mavis stopped by for a chat over the garden fence yesterday.
I reliably see them each morning when they stop by for a breakfast snack of peanuts and kibble. They’re usually in an “eat and run” mood at that time day, being hungry and having a full crow-tinterary ahead of them.
Occasionally they stop by for a more leisurely afternoon visit. Yesterday they were in a particularly sociable mood. I almost thought that one day I might get Marvin, the bolder of the pair, to eat from my hand. Not there yet, but Marvin was at least ready to give the matter some serious consideration.
Marvin seemed particularly curious about me yesterday, and prepared to get quite close.
Mavis prefers to keep an eye on proceedings from a bit further away.
Marvin steps a little closer …
Marvin finally got to about a foot away from me and then retreated back in order to do some thinking out loud. You can see his thought process in action in the following video.
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I was so pleased to be part of such a close up performance of the lovely crow “rattle” call. I’m not sure if anyone knows for sure what this type of call means, but it really did seem as if it was part of his consideration on the subject of how much I could be trusted. It was combined with some branch pecking. This, I’ve noticed, is done when they’re feeling a bit frustrated or not sure what to do next.
You can see in this close-up how the tongue seems to move about quite a bit when they make the rattle call.
Quite a bit of rattle calling went on in my garden yesterday. I’d never seen such a long session of it up close.
Mavis keeps looking on silently from her branch.
Eventually they both came down from fence and tree and had a little hop around the back yard.
And so we passed a happy hour or two. If you read my earlier blog post, Home Décor for Nature Lovers, in which I reveal a rather laissez-faire attitude to housework, this post might help explain why that is.
After all, who can find time for dusting when there are such brilliant conversationalists hanging out right in the back yard?
You see a loud, smart, black bird, hanging around with his gang of mates, giving you fearless looks, and constantly rummaging through the garbage (or your picnic) for a snack.
Must be a crow, right? Or at least a corvid relation?
But no, the grackle isn’t even distantly related to the crow. It’s a member of the Blackbird family, which includes the Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds that we see in the Pacific Northwest, as well as Cowbirds and Orioles.
We went to Mexico last winter and as soon as we got out of the airport I started noticing these cheeky, opportunistic birds.
They seemed to be everywhere, always with a beady yellow eye to the main chance.
In the absence of any crows, the grackles began to occupy the part of my brain that is usually filled with corvid observations.
The grackles we saw in Mexico were of the Great Tailed variety (Quiscalus Mexicanus). Locally, they’re called Zanates.
In comparison to crows, they’re a lot more streamlined, with light gold-coloured eyes, and legs that go on forever. The males have a long, impressive (some might say, “great”) tails, and a have vivid blue and violet sheen to their feathers.
The females are much, much smaller (about half the size), with more modest tails and dullish brown feathers.
Her and him doing a bit of foraging in the sand, as you do …
They’re so different that it took me a while to realize that they’re the same species — I thought for a long time that they were two kinds of grackle that just liked to hang out together.
Female Great Tailed Grackle paddling at the beach.
We did see a dazzling variety of birds in Mexico (pelicans, spoonbills, herons, parrots, hummingbirds, chachalacas, caciques, woodpeckers, buntings, doves, cormorants …) but, for some reason the grackles kept calling to me. I guess I just can’t resist a bird that looks me right in the camera lens and dares me to press the shutter.
Buzz off, paparazzi!
Look out, make way for the Great Tail.
Like crows, the grackles could be pretty raucous. Here’s one making some sort of statement in the early morning near our hotel. Luckily we were up early anyway, on the search for the elusive red cardinal that paid a fleeting and tantalizing visit on the first day, never to be see again. But that’s an entirely different story.
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Once I got home to Vancouver I planned to do some more research and write a blog about the grackles, but, what with one thing and another, the cheeky grackles slipped my mind and that mental space got recolonized by corvids.
Luckily I was reminded about grackles last week when I got an email from a friend who’s in Mexico now. She was wondering about the crow-like black birds she was seeing everywhere …
My interest rekindled, I started going through my photos from last year and doing a little more research. I’d looked up Great Tailed Grackles online when we were in Mexico —enough to identify them and glean a few facts — but our internet was a bit dodgy, and there were other distractions of course, so I didn’t get too far.
The ingenious modem set up at our hotel in Mexico.
My recent online search for grackle facts turned up news of a fascinating study by Corina Logan of Cambridge University. The Great-Tailed Grackles she encountered in Costa Rica reminded her of crows, and spurred her to wonder if they shared any of that famous corvid intelligence. In 2016, at the university of California, she performed some tests to find out. A series of food acquisition challenges she set for them proved that, like crows, they were very good at deploying a variety of solutions to solve different problems. This particular skill is known, in bird scientist lingo, as “behavioural flexibility” and understanding it is an important piece in solving the bird intelligence puzzle.
Famous crow expert, John Marzluff, commented on the study, saying that Logan’s study “ clearly demonstrated variability that different individuals have when it comes to learning. That’s really cool. You’d see the same thing in people.”
So crows and grackles, apart from the casually observed similarities, also share a special avian ingenuity. I don’t know if they overlap in any territory and, if so, I wonder if they compete, or use their street smarts to divide up the neighbourhood like avian gangs.
Does anyone reading this live in a place where Great Tailed Grackles and crows both reside?
I did see one member of the corvid family when we were in Mexico. The Urraca or White Throated Magpie Jay was sometimes to be found on our early morning bird watching walks. An impossibly exotic looking bird, with a “fascinator” head adornment, it would not have looked out of place at a royal tea party. I’d have liked to spend more time with this bird, but it was a lot harder to spot than the ubiquitous, and always entertaining, Grackle.