Thursday, January 5, 2012

Not So Ordinary Birds

It's very common for us to take for granted that which we see every day.  Having lived in North Dakota and Colorado, Canada geese were a very common sight.  It wasn't until I lived in Florida for eight years, where I didn't see a single goose, and then moved back up north to Pennsylvania that I realized how much I missed seeing them.

Many birds that we see every day are more intelligent than one might give them credit for. Vultures, rock doves (pigeons), and European starlings all score high on their avian ACTs.  In fact, one of the most clever of bird families can be found in your own backyard.  Corvidae is the family of birds that includes crows, ravens, and jays, all of which are bird brainiacs. Recently I have had the privilege to get to know a fish crow on a personal basis thanks to my friends at the Schuylkill Center Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic, here in Philadelphia. 

Crow with his best friend, Michele, of the Schuylkill Center Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic

The fish crow, known just as "Crow", was brought to the center after reportedly landing on people's heads and shoulders without any fear.  Still young enough to have blue eyes and the remnants of a fleshy gape at the corners of his beak, Crow was so imprinted on humans and disinterested in his own species that he was deemed non-releasable.  I got to meet Crow in his large outside pen just a week after his arrival at the center and was charmed by watching that big ol' brain at work.  After a brief introduction, I crouched down and started digging in the soil with a stick.  Although Crow had been skittish around me just moments before, he now boldly hopped onto the ground in front of me and watched intently as I dug.  He even reached in and tugged as hard as he could on a root I had unearthed.  Crow was watching me like a family member, learning what to eat by my example.  I picked up a mouse bone on the ground and offered it to him, which he snatched out of my hands faster than Gollum can say "My preciousssss".  Anything that I picked up and showed interest in had to immediately go into his beak.

I had the opportunity to visit Crow again in his spacious inside abode last week, this time accompanied by Mr. Nature Geek.  Crow immediately took to Mr. Nature Geek and would land on him willingly.  It seems that my novelty had worn off!  Mr. Nature Geek is as smitten with corvids as I am, and he and Crow spent quite a bit of time together exploring the velcro and zipper pulls on his jacket.  His jacket also has a pocket on the arm, which gave Mr. Nature Geek, Michele (Crow's "mom" at the clinic), and I an idea.   Most if not all corvids store, or cache, food to come back to eat later, usually by burying it in the ground.  Would Crow try to store food in Mr. Nature Geek's pocket?  Crow was offered the previous night's leftovers, a water logged and headless mouse, and what happened next you can see for yourself.

Yup, nothing says "you're my new best friend" like stuffing a decapitated mouse into your pocket.  

If given the chance, Mr. Nature Geek and myself would have stayed all day in that room playing with Crow and watching his mind at work.  The great news though is that you don't have to go far to find fascinating bird behaviors and intelligence, just take a closer look at the birds you see every day.

If you'd like to learn more about the Schuylkill Center Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic or would like to give a donation to spoil Crow rotten with toys and mice that he can decapitate, just click here!

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