“SMARTEST BIRD ALIVE” – THE CROW (July 17/98)

Tap, tap, tap, repeated over and over, morning after morning. After a while we wondered what our neighbour was diligently working at every day, so we peeked through the hedge. The “neighbour” was a crow tapping on the basement window of the house next door. For several weeks the crow went through the ritual daily, tapping, stopping a moment to peer in the window, tapping again, and for all we know the bird could still be visiting next door.

What attracted the crow to our neighbour’s basement window? Was it unusual behaviour for a bird? People who study crows say it’s nosy and curious and often spends its leisure time checking out shiny things and getting into mischief. And no, it isn’t unusual behaviour for a bird – if the bird is a crow. Students of the crow claim it is intelligent and deserves more than the black reputation it has acquired through long association with man.

If you want to know how bright the crow really is, ask someone who has kept them for pets. Or should that be the other way around? Ask a person a crow has adopted about these birds. Some of the stories you’ll hear will… well, let’s listen to a couple of crow people and you fill in the adjectives.

Jim, a crow owned for many years by a friend would come when called, was adept at catching coins out of the air, and could do a near-perfect imitation of a dog’s yelping bark. Jim’s favourite stunt, repeated many times before witnesses, involved matches. Place a box of matches on a hard surface and Jim would pry it open; taking a match in his beak, the bird would flick it to the ground with enough force to light it, jumping away as each match flared up. Jim would repeat this stunt over and over until no matches remained in the box.

If you find this hard to believe, how about the talk I heard recently on CBC television on the intelligence of various birds. An ornithologist described experiments with boxes which indicated crows had the ability to count up to four or five. Another expert, a zoologist, said crows have a wide range of voices and can mimic many sounds. “They may well be the smartest bird alive,” the ornithologist said.

The crow’s amazing ability to imitate sounds was described in 1953 by Dr. Harrison F. Lewis, the former chief of the Canadian Wildlife Service. Writing in our national outdoor magazine, Hunting and Fishing in Canada, Lewis said that captive crows can easily learn a few simple words. “Pet crows often learn to say ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’ and sometimes such brief expressions as ‘Ah, go on’ and ‘Get up.’ They also frequently learn to imitate loud human laughter to perfection,” Lewis said.

Dr. Lewis was convinced that crows have a sense of humour and he related several incidents that seemed to confirm this. But we don’t need a distinguished biologist to tell us this. Look at the off and on invasion of Kentville and tell me crows don’t have a few drops of clown blood in their veins.

Crows may seem like an unusual topic for a hunting and fishing column, but as I’ve said before they’re my favourite non-game bird. I’ve spent countless hours observing crows in nearly 50 years of hunting and fishing. Quiet periods in the duck blind, the noon hour rests in pheasant and grouse coverts, the breaks when trout stop rising have provided myriad and most welcome moments to observe crows.

Those were golden moments and for me, they’re an intrinsic part of hunting and fishing. A predator and a nuisance they may be, but the outdoors wouldn’t be the same and hunting and fishing would be less enjoyable if flocks of crows weren’t squabbling and complaining somewhere over the horizon.

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