Earlier this year we spent just over 4 weeks visiting our son and his family in Sydney. Over recent weeks I’ve shared some of the birding experiences we had while there, and when we weren’t on grandparent duties. On the very last day we had a family picnic at Centennial Park (see photo above). Some of our son’s friends were also present and the weather was brilliant; bright sunshine and just a hint of a breeze.
Over the course of the afternoon I managed quite a nice list of the birds observed in the park, including a few flying overhead. The most prominent in-your-face species were the usual suspects: Noisy Miners, White Ibis and Common Mynas. We had to be on guard all the time and some of our friends’ biscuits were snatched from packets within a metre or two from where we sat.
One species I didn’t expect to join this thieving group was the local crows, or more precisely, Australian Ravens. Now I have known that crows and ravens are sneaky, opportunistic thieves since the days when I grew up on the family farm in the mallee districts of South Australia. The local Little Ravens thought nothing of snatching a few eggs from our laying hens and ducks. On this picnic, however, I saw them in a different light; they are very clever.
In the photo above I’ve captured an Australian Raven “red handed” in the act of stealing some food from someone’s picnic. The bird was clever enough to know what was food, how to get it out of the basket and even how to open the plastic bag to get at the food. I am not sure what the food is – perhaps some cut up watermelon.
Within a few seconds, the successful heist was noticed by several White Ibis patrolling the picnic area. In the photo above the raven was still in control of the stolen food, but the ibis was about to take over. They are the “bully boys” in this situation, one that is repeated in many picnic grounds throughout eastern Australia.
It wasn’t long before an ibis had taken over eating the human picnic food (see photo above). Within a very short time several other ibises joined in the feast. Even a Rock Dove (feral pigeon) comes over to see if it can get into the act (see above, top left corner of the photo).
The raven wasn’t to be outsmarted, however. It went to another picnic spot nearby, rummaged through the human food delicacies and came up with something edible in a paper bag. To minimise the chances of being noticed and being bullied out of its catch, it flew to a nearby tree. There it was successful in holding the paper bag against the branch, opening it up and getting at the food (see photos below).
Observe the feathers (called hackles) on the throat. This helps identify this bird as an Australian Raven.
I’ve always known that crows and ravens were clever birds. They can be downright cunning at times. From a very early age growing up on a farm I was aware of their sneaky habits of flying into the chook yard to steal the eggs.
Over the years I’ve read further examples of these clever birds using tools to get to their food. Some of these indicators of intelligence have been filmed and shown on television. A more recent research programme has demonstrated an intelligence far beyond what was previously thought possible. The following quote comes from The Australian newspaper.
: Crows, famous for using tools, have even more impressive brains than previously thought. LONDON
Seven New Caledonian crows retrieved an unreachable snack with a stick, which first had to be obtained using a shorter stick.
This “metatool” use requires levels of intelligence and reasoning only seen before in humans and great apes.
It may have allowed humans to use simple stone tools to fashion more complex ones.
The new evidence shows a level of understanding similar to that of chimpanzees and orangutans.
scientists placed a meat treat out of the crows’ reach in a 15cm-deep hole. Nearby were two “toolboxes” with vertical bars through which the birds could insert bills, but not their heads. Universityof Auckland
A stick long enough to fish the meat from the hole was in one toolbox, but too far behind the bars for the crow to reach. The other toolbox contained a stone in the same position.
In front of both boxes lay a stick too short to extract the meat, but capable of reaching the long stick.
All seven crows worked out how to get the long stick and extract the meat.
From time to time we see the clever antics of birds and animals featured on television programmes. These birds and animals have usually been trained to do these clever, sometimes cute tricks.
In their natural state birds can be even smarter. The humble crow has long been known here in Australia as being very cunning, often stealing eggs from domestic fowl sheds, much to the annoyance of the owners of the home chooks.
A report from The Times Online service states these interesting things about crows and their cleverness:
CAW! THAT’S SMART
Debbie has left an interesting comment. I decided to copy it into the main body of the text here:
There is a golf course across the road from my block, when I moved in I thought the local golfers were very poor shots as there were heaps of golf balls on my block, I used to pick them up & give them back to the golf club & thats when I learnt about Ã¢â‚¬Ëœcrow eggsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ – it seems the crows steal the balls thinking they are eggs & drop them from height to break them. They have been known to swoop in & take the ball while the game is in play. Daft buggers!
Thanks for that Debbie
I have written before about how clever crows and ravens can be. This is a well established fact and people around the world have witnessed how intelligent the corvid family can be. In fact, if you do a search for videos of these birds using tools you will find many hundreds of them; I have provided a link below.
Earlier this week I witnessed first hand one of the Little Ravens in our garden actually using a tool to assist in finding food. It had picked up what looked like a flat rock and was progressively using it to prise bark off the trunk of a mallee tree near the house. Once the bark was lifted it dropped the stone and used its beak to grab whatever was hiding beneath the bark.
Spiders, beetles and a whole range of small creatures routinely live under the bark of the local trees. Several times the bird flew down to the ground to retrieve the stone in order to use it again for the same purpose. After about three or four little snacks it flew off, stone in its beak to another tree, this time out of sight.
Of course, I didn’t have my camera handy at the time. [Sigh]
One of the readers of this blog recently made a comment on a previous article about clever crows. Here is what he said:
We watched a crow today land on our mailbox (faux wooden stump) and pull out a letter from amongst a pile and fly off with it. The envelope was white with a stamp and a yellow address change sticker but nothing out of the ordinary.
The crow flew next door holding the envelope and then flew to the telephone pole where it started to attempt to Ã¢â‚¬Å“open it?Ã¢â‚¬Â rip it. It lost itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s grip and the letter fell to the ground.
Turns out it was junk mail anyway!
I wonder if we can train these birds to remove only the junk mail from our letter boxes? There could be quite a niche market for these specially trained junk interceptors.
I have written before about how clever and cunning crows and ravens can be (see the links below). The Little Ravens around our home are still trying to steal the rubber from the wiper blades on our cars. They do it when we are not looking. It is really annoying because the rubber strips are really hard to slide back into position. On several occasions they have actually taken the rubber away – presumably for nesting material. Replacing the blades is not a cheap exercise.
- Clever crows – some examples of the cleverness of crows.
- Something to crow about – an article about Tokyo crows with a liking for the internet.
- Ravens and windows – our resident ravens have an annoying habit.
- Thieving birds – more about those pesky ravens and their thieving ways.
- Corvids – an extract from my glossary of words about birds.