Country Sights and Sounds
THE sea was still, apart from the rippling of waders in the far distance. A pair of hooded crows picked through the tangle of wrack on the foreshore, pulling the storm-tattered strands first to one side, then the other, as they sought whatever little creatures might be hiding underneath. When I walked towards them they moved away, casting gravel-throated insults in my direction.
I took my turn at searching through the seaweed, but apart from the compulsory regiment of sandhoppers there was little life to be found. Still, there is nothing wrong with a diet of these tiny, protein rich crustaceans. Given the enormous quantity of them it is surprising that so few birds congregate to feed where they occur.
The crows, meanwhile, had moved down to the water’s edge, where the mussel beds were being exposed by the retreating tide. Striding across the rocks, the birds paused here and there as if to more closely examine individual shellfish. When one bird found a mussel more appealing than the rest, it struck it several times with its bill to dislodge it. Then the crow took the mussel high above the road and dropped it. It took a number of attempts, but in the end the shell gave way and the crow got its lunch.
Most members of the crow tribe are highly intelligent and very inventive. An article in the journal Science noted that some members of the crow family ‘are not only superior in intelligence to birds of other avian species (perhaps with the exception of some parrots), but also rival many nonhuman primates.’ Certainly, the very act of opening a mussel by dropping onto a hard surface from a height suggests some kind of reasoning is present.
Other types of crow manufacture tools from sticks and other materials to assist them in their quest for food. Yet I somehow doubt that the birds figure things out for themselves. Rather, they learn a pattern of behaviour from their own experience and from watching other birds overcome difficulties.
I might be wrong, of course. However they have it figured out, they are a source of amusement and admiration for us.
Not all like to see the hoodie, or greyback, about the place. The shepherd will watch for him carefully, and especially so at this time of year, with the sheep lambing on the hill. All crows are opportunistic feeders, and will take whatever comes their way.
Given the attention of the greyback a weak lamb wouldn’t last minutes, and even the adult ewe would be in immediate danger of losing an eye should she be stricken with one of the multitude of malignancies that constantly afflict these weakest of farm animals.
When we found where the greyback had her nest last year we watched it closely. Every time we looked towards the bundle of sticks she had assembled in the fork of the thorn tree, the sitting bird slipped off it and disappeared from sight. We only needed to turn briefly away and she would be back on her eggs within seconds. Then, should we once more give her attention, off she would go again, fleeting silent, as a shadow.
When the young emerged from the eggs I climbed up in the parent bird’s absence to marvel at the grotesque nestlings. They thought that I had brought them food and they gaped stupidly, their bald heads little more than eye-bulge and hungry maw.
Within the week they had come to nothing; a predator had found where they lay, and had left nothing but a splash of guano to show where the little lives had once been. I think the adults held me responsible for the loss of their family, but they were friends of no man anyway.
The two crows found a crab hiding among the stones and shared it between them, pulling its legs off one by one to swallow them down. Yes, they are cruel, but they know no better. They are interested in food, and survival, and little else. But before they flew across the quiet water of Newport Bay they gave a glimpse of another side to their nature, touching beak to beak, rubbing cheek to cheek, no doubt stirred by the early sunshine. Then they were away, a pair of cold-minded villains bent on murder and mischief, ignorant of the beauty of this fine winter’s day.