By GENE BULLOCK
One of the oldest playground taunts is to call someone a “bird brain.” But it’s a jibe that flies in the face of experience.
Birds are amazingly resourceful and intelligent; crows are some of the craftiest critters aloft. People have marveled at their clever antics for millennia.
A good example is the carrion crow of Sendai City, Japan. These crows thrive on locally abundant walnuts, but they have a tough time cracking them open. So the birds perch on traffic lights with walnuts held in their beaks. When a red light stops the traffic, the birds fly down, position the walnuts in the path of the traffic and return to their vantage point. The light turns green, the traffic resumes, and the walnuts are crushed by tires passing over them.
As soon as the light turns red again, the crows return to the pavement to claim their food.
Clarence Stevens recounts amusing crow stories in his book “Birding in Metro Halifax.” (Nimbus, 1996). Linda Payzant, a Halifax birder, described a clever trickster: a crow, observing a gull eating something on a rooftop, sneaked up behind the gull and plucked at its tail feathers. When the gull turned, the crow retreated, then advanced and pecked again when the gull returned to its meal. The gull turned again; the crow retreated again. A third time, the crow pecked the gull's tail feathers and the gull lost patience. Forgetting the food, it flew at the crow, but the crow was ready: flying up over the gull and swooping down, the crow claimed the prize and flew off.
When I was a young boy growing up in Michigan, friends had a pet crow they had raised after it fell out of its nest as a baby. The crow followed them everywhere, and could talk. Although it’s illegal to raise wild birds or animals unless you are properly licensed, stories abound of pet crows that can talk. These stories often mention the crow’s mischievous sense of humor, and that they delight in teasing their owners. Even among humans, a clever sense of humor is associated with intelligence.
But resourceful problem solving isn’t limited to crows. Barn swallows were reported nesting inside a Costco warehouse in Wisconsin. Barn swallows like to nest in barns and buildings because their human neighbors help discourage predators. What’s so remarkable about this pair is that they learned to let themselves in and out of the warehouse by flying in front the motion detecting switch to activate the doors. Their behavior made them a community favorite.
One of my favorite examples of bird savvy was a YouTube video showing a green heron that had learned to fish using bait. These pint-sized cousins of great blue herons hang out where they can watch for fish, which they deftly skewer with their bills. But this heron got tired of waiting and flew to a park bench nearby where someone was feeding bread crumbs to the gulls. He picked up a bread crumb, returned to his perch and dropped it in the water. Soon a fish came to the surface to check out the crumb. In the blink of an eye. it was lunch for the crafty heron.
Birds may not be able to open a can or read a newspaper, but they have their own priorities and problems to solve. When it comes to survival, they can be surprisingly inventive.
Being called a “bird brain” may not be such a bad thing.
— Gene Bullock is editor of the Kitsap Audubon Society newsletter, “The Kingfisher.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org