Crows: nature’s best tricksters

Many residents of Victoria have a love-hate relationship with crows.

Barbara Julian

Many residents of Victoria have a love-hate relationship with crows.

Some only hate them, for their raucous clamour at dawn, their dive-bombing of walkers near their nests, their preying on baby robins. Others wholly love their intelligence, shiny blackness, comic antics and the complex communications going on among them.

We admire their versatility and inventiveness. They hide things, play tricks on each other, mate for life, sing to their children with thousands of different vocalizations, use their beaks as a third foot and make their feet double as hands. They can open anything from a clam shell to a pizza box, and teach these skills to other crows.

Maclean’s Magazine reported in 2010 that the crow population of Victoria (Canada’s “crow capital”) numbered 10,000 — and growing. A plethora of recent books on corvids (crows, ravens and magpies) attest to both lay and specialist fascination with them. Many books describe how researchers have got corvids to count and solve riddles, but it is when they are behaving naturally in their own environment that crows are most interesting.

Their best trick of all: they remain wild while exploiting the habits of the tame humans around them. They seem to have a highly evolved sense of humour. If you wish to take his picture in close-up, a crow will wait while you carefully adjust your settings, and at the last moment before you click the button will fly off in a blur, saluting you with the taunting tilt of a graceful wing.

Like raccoons, crows are geniuses at adaptation. Their tribe, Aves — the birds — hails from the Triassic (reptilian) period of over 200 million years ago, while humanity has existed perhaps a couple of hundred thousand (depending on how you define human). Birds are, in other words, greatly senior to us, and their evolution seems to have followed different but equally stunning paths of complexity.

Once when I was picnicking at Ross Bay beach a few crows pestered me for food, swooping down and bouncing up the sand in that annoying way they have. I flung a handful of pebbles in their direction to scare them off, but to my horror —- although if I practiced for a year I could never succeed in hitting a target -— one of the pebbles randomly hit one of the crows. I was so remorseful that I began tossing grapes and the remains of my sandwich in apology. But which crow had I hit?

Now they were flying in a confusing whirl, catching grapes in mid-air and being joined by dozens of their brethren. Where had those been, how had they instantly known about this food-fest, how had they been told?

I have no doubt that those crows knew why I threw pebbles and why I then threw grapes, and accepted my apology. It’s a good thing, because according to research, and confirmed by our own Victoria Natural History Society, a crow can recognize a human face she has seen but once, years before.

Had I made enemies of this mob I might never have been able to show my face in Fairfield again. Paranoid? Maybe, but I have the impression that crows know a lot more about us than we do about them. No wonder we feel ambiguous about them, however persistent our sneaking admiration.