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Last weekend in The Village of La Jolla, I noticed a crow hop across newly laid sod, lift a corner with his beak then check underneath for worms. After a nice long look, the crow dropped the heavy sod back into place. He was unsuccessful. But it was remarkably good thinking. His unorthodox hunt for food caused me to pause. I remembered back to another memorable moment involving crows.
Scientists have long recognized the intelligence of crows. Crows and ravens have been seen using tools. But would they assist a human in distress? You be the judge ...
For 25 years on my property, I’ve been leaving water and food for the crows and other birds. Every day — unless I forget — I fill a circular concrete birdbath outside my house with fresh water. Countless species of neighborhood birds make use of the water. I am amazed at the cooperative pecking order (pardon the pun) when birds line up on the branches of a tree just a few feet from the birdbath to wait their turn.
Sometimes crows carry their own food to the birdbath. On the generous rim, they crack open hard objects and break food into pieces. Often, crows will stand side-by-side breaking and sharing. Up to four crows at once have perched on the rim to work on a meal. The crows bob up and down like California oil rigs. Occasionally, I’ll find pieces of a snail or another bird in the water. They almost always eat the food I leave for them.
I scrub the birdbath every week. But to fill it, I always use the same recycled 48-ounce red plastic Folgers Classic Roast container. The moment I walk outside with that container, the crows begin to light upon the telephone wires just above the birdbath. And there they wait until I pour the last drop. I’m so used to them, that after all these years, I’ve gotten to the point where I say, “Hello Crow.”
I can’t tell you if they recognize the red tub. Yet when I walk outside without the tub the crows do not fly to the wires above. And I can’t tell you if the crows recognize me. Yet when the crows are on the birdbath, I can walk within 10 feet of them and they do not fly away.
A study at the University of Washington by marine biologist Dr. John Marzluff concluded that crows do recognize faces. Marzluff went one step further, concluding that crows can discern friend or foe. He designed a caveman mask as “dangerous,” and the mask of a political figure as “neutral.” The volunteers who wore the dangerous masks trapped and banded seven crows on the university’s Seattle campus.
Following the captured crows release, student volunteers wore the dangerous masks around campus. The crows continuously scolded them with loud cawing. Researchers hypothesized that crows are taught to recognize dangerous humans by other members of the flock. But if you still question the species’ intelligence, maybe the following examples will change your mind:
• At a theme park in France, six crows were trained to pick up cigarette butts and bits of trash, then dispose of them in a box;
• The story of a man who fed crows for years, then lost his cat to a coyote, recently made its way to television; the crows found the cats remains in the wild, removed the collar and placed it in the man’s birdbath.
But would crows work together in the way I’m about to describe? I think in the end, only their motive is debatable ...
It was a warm summer day when I decided to climb onto the second story roof of my house to tar and repair roof shingles. For safety, I usually walk tight to the wall beneath the eaves. As I climbed up with my tube of roof tar loaded in the caulking gun I heard a sea gull on the west side cawing at me from the roof top next door. I didn’t think anything of it. I was headed east in the opposite direction. From the corner of my eye, I saw he was protecting a nest. So I kept edging away from the sea gull along the eave.
And then it happened. In an instant, I felt a hard strike against the back of my head. When I spun around, the sea gull was in my face. It is amazing how big a sea gull looks up close to your eyeballs, wings spread wide to remain airborne, claws outstretched.
The sea gull got his claws onto my scalp a second time. And he began to try to get a good grip. My scalp stung as I fell back against the wall. But he kept coming. He missed my eyes by just inches. Fortunately, the eave, now just over my head, prevented him from getting any closer. Then just as suddenly as he had attacked, he flew away. He flew east.
I leaned out from under the eave to see where he’d gone. That’s when a second sea gull swooped down fast from the opposite direction and clawed my right temple. Turns out, the mate was helping out. I was still holding the caulking gun and I began to use it as a weapon. I did not want to hurt the sea gull. But I could feel the cut on my scalp and the blood on the side of my face. These two sea gulls meant business.
The second sea gull backed off. She raised herself high into the sky, flew in a circular motion in the opposite direction of the male, crossing paths twice. I thought it was over. But the first one swooped down again to attack me from the west. I didn’t even see him coming. He dropped down fast and came at my face. He lingered airborne for at least 10 seconds as I swung the caulking gun back and forth to keep him at bay. As he flew away, the female dropped down fast from the east. She cut the back of my hand as I defended my face.
They dive-bombed at me one more time. I was yelling to try to discourage them. They didn’t care.
Edging along the wall to make my way to a safer position, I started continuously swinging the caulking gun. When I touched my scalp my fingers were red. I glanced up again to see where the gulls had gone. I was stunned to see them making their circular turns to drop down for another attack. And that’s when it happened.
Two crows appeared in the sky. They flew together, almost side by side as they glided toward the sea gulls. Then the crows divided up, each of them falling in behind a sea gull. They were hot on their tails. It was like the old WWI dog fights, only silent in the sky. As one sea gull completed his circle and dropped toward my house, a crow almost smashed into him in the sky. The sea gull broke off his dive to circle again.
The second crow may have actually collided with the female sea gull. But it was too difficult to tell if they actually hit. There was a joining, a wild flutter of wings then a separation. The crows now stayed on their tails. Both sea gulls then broke their circular formation and tried to lose the crows. They flew apart and clearly were in avoidance mode, flying jagged patterns. But the crows stuck close behind forcing them further and further away.
And then it was over. The sea gulls dropped down to their nest and the two crows flew into the nearby Eucalyptus trees.
Of course, this is where the debate begins. This is also where I will leave the story. Were the crows protecting me? What reason would they have had to chase away the sea gulls? Neither sea gull was near their perch in the trees. Why would they have attacked such large birds capable of putting up a strong offense?
Could they, or would they, team up to defend a human? If my face is not dangerous or not neutral, am I a friend? No matter, the imagined or real friendship is tenuous at best. Recently, a Kestrel hawk and a formidable osprey moved into the neighborhood. The crows have left temporarily for safer surroundings. Their loyalty and friendship only goes so far ...
In the kitchen, I wiped a little blood from my scalp and forehead. I’m pretty certain that my “crow intervention” was coincidence. But now and then, I recall that I have left food and water for the crows for 25 years. Also, that anything in nature is possible. Partnerships seem important to them. They are intelligent. After all, they will search for worms under heavy turf. They will pick up trash. They might be smart enough to protect the hand that feeds them.
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