The Games Crows Play, and Other Winged Tales
By JAMES GORMAN
The extremes of animal behavior can be a source of endless astonishment. Books have been written about insect sex. The antics of dogs and cats are sometimes hard to believe. And birds, those amazing birds: They build elaborate nests, learn lyrical songs, migrate impossibly long distances. But “Gifts of the Crow,” by John N. Marzluff and Tony Angell, includes a description of one behavior that even Aesop never imagined.
“On Kinkazan Island in northern Japan,” the authors write, “jungle crows pick up deer feces — dry pellets of dung — and deftly wedge them in the deer’s ears.”
I checked the notes at the back of the book, and this account comes from another book, written in Japanese. So I can’t give any more information on this astonishing claim, other than to say that Dr. Marzluff, of the University of Washington, and Mr. Angell, an artist and observer of birds, think that the crows do it in the spirit of fun.
Deer droppings, it must be said, are only one of the crows’ gifts. The authors’ real focus is on the way that crows can give us “the ephemeral and profound connection to nature that many people crave.” To that end, however, they tell some wild anecdotes and make some surprising assertions.
Many of the behaviors they describe — crows drinking beer and coffee, whistling and calling dogs and presenting gifts to people who feed them — are based on personal testimony and would seem to fall into the category of anecdote rather than science.
But the book is also full of clear and detailed accounts of research, with descriptions of the structure of the crow brain and of the various experiments that show the remarkable intelligence of crows and their relatives.
One claim had almost the same effect on me as the deer dung trick.
“Language discovery in a wild animal will not be surprising,” the authors write. “As we scientists become more sophisticated in matching the response of animals to nuances in their vocalizations, we may discover language in cognitive birds and mammals that rivals our own.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the discovery of language rivaling our own in wild animals would be a huge scientific surprise. Many scientists are highly skeptical of some of the existing claims for animal communication, and near-human language would be on another plane altogether.
“Bird Sense” sticks close to hard science in tackling the subject of its subtitle, “What It’s Like to Be a Bird,” but Tim R. Birkhead, of the University of Sheffield in England, has his share of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! statements as well. For example: “If you put your ear over an earthworm’s burrow you can sometimes hear the worm’s tiny bristles rustling against the sides.”
Listening for worms seems like something that would fit right in with citizen science, or “Alice in Wonderland.” I suppose you would need to find a lawn that is not fouled by dogs, geese or deer. I’m going to give it a try in my own yard, which meets some of these criteria. But I will inspect the ground closely before I put my ear to it, which would be necessary to find the worm burrow in the first place.
Worm-listening does have to do with birds, by the way. Dr. Birkhead writes about it in connection with studies that show robins can find worms with their sense of hearing.
He has many intriguing findings to deliver about the many senses of birds, including their magnetic sense, still not completely understood. They have talents humans do not. They can use each eye independently. They can fly with one eye closed and half of their brain asleep and still navigate better than a human driver texting in traffic.
Dr. Birkhead also has some good stories to tell of work in the field, some of which, inevitably, involve bird sex. One effort to determine by observation in the wild whether the male buffalo weaver bird, which spends long stretches copulating, was experiencing orgasms led him to lament that “witnessing copulations was tough.”
He acknowledges that in the end science cannot actually say what it’s like to be a bird. His subtitle was drawn from the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote an essay about consciousness called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The scientist has no more luck than the philosopher in answering the fundamental question, and for the same reason. We have no way to know the subjective experience of bat or bird, nor neighbor or spouse, no matter how much information we have on how their senses work or on the structure of their brains. The only subjective experience we have is our own. But the attempt to get at what a bird sees, hears, feels and thinks is more than worth the effort because there are so many intriguing facts and stories that the reader learns along the way.
Both books together are remarkable in their celebration of birds, not least because neither of them gives much consideration to the one trait of birds that, more than any other, captivates human beings in the first place.
They can fly.
New books by Marzluff (on crows) and Birkhead (bird sensory perception)books
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