Crows Making Tools?

Sacred Bay and the surrounding islands are chock-full of pack-ice, and looking out my front window I’ve been wondering, why are there crows on the ice in the tickle, and what they could be doing?   (Dictionary of Newfoundland English: TICKLE  A narrow salt-water strait, as in an entrance to a harbor or between islands or other land masses, often difficult or treacherous to navigate because of narrowness or tides.)

Harbor Island Tickle and Harbor Island: a favorite nesting site for sea birds.
Harbor Island Tickle and Harbor Island: a favorite nesting site for sea birds.

In British Columbia we saw plenty of crows and thought of them as noisy pests.  I guess I never attributed much intelligence to birds of any kind.  However, one of the more enlightening experiences of my life was at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, where I saw Vending Machine Chickens.  When I dropped a quarter into a coin slot and looked into a glassed-in pen, a live chicken sprang up and, with its beak, tapped out a cheerful tune on a toy piano.  As soon as the tune ended the vending machine coughed up a little ‘bird treat’ and the chicken was rewarded for playing the piano.   I thought that was pretty fascinating stuff.

Some people consider crows a bad omen and most probably think they don’t have a grain of sense, but I wonder if that can be true.  For instance, these birds clean up road kill, eat insect pests, and alert us to ‘big doings’ in the woods or along the shoreline.  They alerted me early one morning to a lone coyote tracking southwest on the ice towards Tucker’s Cove.  I’m pretty sure, too, that if or when a polar bear makes his way across the ice to Ship Cove on a seal hunting expedition, the crows will be the first to let us know.

Crows have their own highly evolved language and society; living in close-knit families of at least nine birds, with the leader acting as lookout, stationing itself at the top of the tallest tree while others forage or attend to crow business.  If you hear a crow scold, he is warning of an approaching predator, a fox or an owl.  A rallying call means the predator is closing in.  An assembly call is sounded when it is time to mob the enemy.  Then there is the dispersal call, which is the crow equivalent of “scatter!”

Crows on the power lines awaiting their daily snack.
Crows on the power lines awaiting their daily snack.

A video circulating on YouTube demonstrates an unusual friendship between a crow and a kitten.  An elderly couple in Massachusetts found a stray kitten in their yard.  They tried to feed it but it was too wild and they feared it would starve.  Then one day, along came Moses, a crow, and he fed the kitten worms and insects; even going so far as to insert the food into the kitten’s mouth.  If the kitten ventured onto the street, Moses cawed and flapped until it returned to the yard.

Behind our house, we have a family of crows living at the edge of the wood.  If I crank open the casement window in the dining room and toss a piece of toast on the snow bank, within minutes a crow is perched on the top of the nearest tree, scoping out the ‘find’.   Soon, two or three crows are perched on tree tops around the yard, but they keep their distance.  When Len and I get up from the table and all the dishes are cleared, only then will they flutter to the ground, waddle cautiously to the piece of bread, and carry it into the woods.

Most interesting of all, in the Coral Sea east of Queensland, Australia, on New Caledonia Island, there are crows that actually make tools by modifying pine needles and leaves, or by sharpening twigs, which they use to lever bugs out of crevices or grubs out of logs.  One crow in captivity took a piece of wire, fashioned it into a hook, and used the hook to pull a bit of meat out of the bottom of a piece of pipe.

So, it seems to me, whether we like to admit it or not, crows are pretty smart creatures, and might be up to a lot more than we know.  If my ears and eyes were as sharp as a crow’s, I might be able to see and hear what they’re doing out there on the ice at Harbour Island Tickle.  One guess is they’re fashioning implements: knives, forks and spoons, out of bits of ice, in anticipation of the annual seal hunt.  I mean, if their Australian cousins are making spears and hooks in New Caledonia, then their Canadian cousins ought to be just as enterprising.

You can take the crow away from his resources, but you can’t take the resourcefulness away from the crow.  At least, that’s my guess.

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