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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Recollections of loading wood and a high speed chase

I’m a city girl.  The day I left home in Vancouver, my mother said, “Don’t marry an easterner.”  I’m sure my mother didn’t have any real prejudice against easterners; she just wanted me to live a little closer to home, but I disobeyed her; I married a boy from Ship Cove.

If you consult a map of Canada you can see that the community of Ship Cove, on Cape Onion, is as far removed from Vancouver as possible, and outport life is as far removed from city life as you can get.  That’s where the culture shock comes in; I just haven’t managed, yet, to cross the cultural bridge from city to rural life.

A view from the front yard at Ship Cove
A view from the front yard at Ship Cove

And that brings to my remembrance a high-speed chase on Route 437 last fall.

That November morning dawned crisp, clear, and cold.  “It’s a perfect day to haul our wood home,” said Len, as he finished his morning tea (he should have had his wood home last summer, but he was away in St. John’s working).

Len doesn’t have a truck, but one of his brothers has a truck and one has a tow-behind.  Both brothers were willing to help, so they picked Len up and drove to the gravel pit near Shoal Arm Hill on Raleigh Road to bring the wood home.  A few hours later, two loads of wood were stacked in our back yard.  Meanwhile, Eliza Colbourne, Len’s sister in L’Anse aux Meadows, put her spyglass to the window, looked across Sacred Bay, and noted that Len and the boys were hauling wood.  “Winston!” she called, “Len’s hauling wood!  Let’s go and help.”

I had some errands to run in St. Anthony and knew nothing of Winston & Eliza’s plans.  Just before I left the house, the phone rang but, before I could pick it up, it disconnected.  I noticed it was the Colbourne’s number and called back, but there was no answer.

A pile of split wood, ready for the fireplace come winter.
A pile of split wood, ready for the fireplace come winter.

Minutes later, I was on the road to St. Anthony.  At Pistolet Bay Park I met Len and his brothers returning with a truckload full of wood.  A short while later, I crested Fox Head Hill on Raleigh Road and noticed a vehicle driving ahead of me, and it looked remarkably like the Colbourne’s truck.

“Can’t be,” I said, dismissing the possibility, “they only just phoned me before I left, and there’s no way they’d be driving away from Ship Cove.  If that were Eliza or Winston, they’d be driving toward me.”  (What I didn’t know then, was that they had been up and down the road searching for Len’s pile of wood, and had just made a U-turn)

The truck slowed down right near the gravel pit where Len’s pile of wood lay and, as I drove past, I thought again how much it looked like Winston and Eliza’s truck, but with the afternoon sun in my eyes, I couldn’t see the occupants.  It seemed to me they must be ‘scoping out’ our pile of wood.   Immediately, my ‘city thinking’ kicked in, and I thought, “That might be somebody looking to steal a load of wood; I’d better warn Len as soon as I get to town.”

Moments later, looking in my rear view mirror, I noticed the same truck speeding up behind me, headlights on, four-ways flashing.  “What are those people up to?” I wondered.  “They’re in a powerful hurry; I guess I’d better speed up.”  The faster I drove, the faster they drove.  In Toronto, you wouldn’t stop for people who drove their cars like that; you’d get out of their way as fast as possible.  To my way of thinking, that was the only thing I could do.

At the branch road to St. Anthony, I rounded the corner on two wheels, barely stopping at the sign, and checked my rear-view mirror again.  Ah!  They were doing a U-turn and heading back down the road.  What strange people, I thought.  I’m glad they’re off my back…

Hours later, when I returned to Ship Cove and saw the black and white truck in our back yard, and Eliza and Winston unloading and stacking wood with Len and Rick and Bob—I knew I’d really messed up.

Five faces turned my way, and five people shook their heads in disappointment.

“Mary,” said Winston.  “We chased you down the road to try to get you to stop. We only wanted to ask you which pile of wood was Len’s.”

*****

It just goes to show, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl; at least not that quickly!