The Cleverness of Crows.

True to my posted word (see ) we have started putting food out for the birds again. I am never sure whether the right thing to do is to actually feed them all year round, but, as something of a traditionalist I tend to think feed them when their natural food is harder to find (yes, yes, yes, I realise the ramifications of artificially raising population umbers and so on – or, I convince myself that I do).

So we have a rather elegant wrought iron construction, with a twelve inch (30 cm.) diameter mesh tray to place food on and various hooks to suspend “peanut/blue tit feeders from. Duly cleaned and looking resplendent it is starting to attract birds. Starlings. Blackbirds? We have a whole gang, usually accompanied by a number of redwings and a couple of fieldfares. A solitary – but massive – song thrush, blue and great tits, wood pigeons (scourge of allotmenteers) and collared doves. Magpies patrol, never far from a nest exposed high in a neighbour’s silver birch – and delightfully a couple of days ago  – a green woodpecker. Not on the table or the lawn, but in the small leaved lime at the end of the garden.

When we first moved to the house we’d keep a “twitcher’s” list of visiting birds (fascinated by the antics, I remember of a reed bunting pair). Now we are more than happy just to observe what comes to take the assorted bacon, nuts, apple, bread, and attack the fat balls.

But this time the fat balls ( a couple of Imperial inches* in diameter) disappear amazingly quickly. While we are not watching. It makes me wonder whether I actually did put any on the table … but yes I definitely did.

Then, considering the options I wonder whether rats have been able (surely they are agile enough?) to drag them down and secrete them away (memories of Templeton in Charlotte’s Web and an addled egg). Or a grey squirrel, though they are around about we haven’t seen one in the garden recently. Raking yet more fallen leaves from the lawn I find the remains of a fat ball. By the garden shed, beneath the Korean pine. Rats? I don’t want to have to say this aloud in the presence of the Plantation Owner’s Wife – but …

“I know what took that stuff off the bird table,” she tells me the next night. I may look a trifle worried at this point (rather than what I like to think is a raffish deadpan poker face). Should I have mentioned my suspicion of the rodent population?

“it’s crows!” she says, eager to explain. It transpires she watched a crow, on the adjacent eight foot wall with one of the fat balls. A full sized one! The bird stayed there for a while, before tipping the ball into next door’s garden and flew away.

I had never considered that a bird might have taken them. Too heavy surely? Unwieldy; definitely.

But I had reckoned without the intelligence and dogged persistence of this bird family (mynahs: those noted mimics, jays, jackdaws, hoodies and our own carrion crows).

Undefeated I put another couple of fat balls onto the table this morning. And, never thinking that the bandits would strike again I watch for a while from the bedroom window. Better view from up there – and a vista of all the adjoining gardens which the birds also use – of course. A lone chaffinch, queues of starlings, outriders, scouts and sentries all around while others feed. Shuffling in the holly tree, branches waving: woodpigeons. Then as I watch a pair of crows glide in. One settles on a nearby chimney, the other is straight onto the wall. I am curious: how do they manage? Will they repeat the trick again; indeed, is this the same crow?

The crow walks its almost human walk so it is closer to the bird feeders. I am wishing that I had my camera with me; that the window was open so I could get a decent snap of this. But more is to follow: it launches itself at the top of the structure: misses, overflies and lands on the lawn. This, in itself is a first. We have seen crows on the roof slopes around us, pecking at critters, presumably in the moss – or taking the moss for nesting in season. But never in the garden. I had imagined they lacked the confidence to land: not enough room to take off again if necessary?

It tries again: up onto the wall, tripping along to the table; another launch, another failure. But eventually (that damned persistence!) it gets the distances and effort correct and is perched and balanced atop the post. With the agility of a parrot it sidles around the metal, slides down the hanger and topples – a little ungraciously, onto the table.

I am put in mind of the Aesop’s fable that has a crow carrying small pebbles to a water jug to raise the level of water so it can drink – after much effort. And the behaviour of the other critters it meets that don’t have the foresight to understand or the patience to help out (though, if memory serves they are all very thirsty).

However, this individual cannot lift the load. It simply cannot fit it into its gape, so is reduced to using that butcher-hook bill to stabbing at the ball, taking chunks out.

The second one now loops down onto the wall, causing the first one to leave: effectively they swap places: the first is now the lookout. This bird is far more competent and swiftly grasps the ball in a wider beak and without a falter takes it onto the wall, then away onto a neighbouring flat roofed garage. Finally away into the grey distances.

Image result for image crow bird table

So they have remembered – and they will be back again and again – and our feeding station will be decimated – with no entertainment value for ourselves. Not having that!

Can I find a way to fasten the food to the table? Florist wire, heated up and pushed through the centres to bind the things to the mesh floor of the table? That’s the short lengths of florist wire used, topically at this time of year to make holly wreaths – and we have plenty of it about. Maybe heat up the ends so they will melt their way through the grease holding the seeds and nuts together? Worth a try?

I put a pan of water onto the hob to eat up.

Might as well rescue the one from the table to begin with eh?

I unlock the door, stride outside …

… I swear I have only been a few – pondering – minutes … but the second fat ball has been spirited away. There was lil ol’ me thinking the birds would have taken time to break up and eat the first one when, indeed they’d been back to snaffle away the second and, no doubt, store it away somewhere – in the way jays are said to do with acorns (often resulting in oak trees popping up nowhere close to established oaks). What a sign of intelligence – added to the opportunism which granted them the chance in the first place, the memory to revisit the same place – and the entrepreneurial spirit that had them taking that bit more than they needed while it was available. How – for good or ill – human-like.

The supreme intelligence of these birds. If it might not be taken as an insult I’d be inclined to say very human behaviour.

*five centimetres.


One response to this post.

  1. One of our local crows worked out how to unhook the fatball holder from the tree, once it was on the ground it could lift the lid and remove the fatballs. Corvids are clever and beautiful 🙂


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