Audubon Focuses on Corvids in Latest Issue

Corvid Behaviors poster by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

“Meet the Bird Braniacs,” reads the header for three stories in the March-April issue of Audubon Magazine, highlighting the American Crow, Eurasian Jay, and Common Raven as especially smart species of bird (the three of them are Corvids, or members of the Corvidae family). In the different research projects covered in the Audubon pieces, the idea of empathy in birds is explored by Nicky Clayton at Cambridge University with Eurasian Jays; the problem of deterring Common Ravens from predating upon desert tortoises is a challenge for Tim Shields in the Mojave desert; and the general intelligence of the American Crow is studied by John Marzluff at the University of Washington. All the articles are quite interesting and worth a read online if you have the time. Below, a brief excerpt from the three essays, by Michael Balter, Alisa Opar, and Kat McGowan, respectively:

“I love you!” says Nicky. “I love you!”
“I love you!” says Lisbon

Nicky Clayton has shoulder-length blonde hair and a posture that reflects her background in dancing.  She is a scientist. She is very smart. Lisbon is a bird, a Eurasian Jay. He’s pretty smart, too. Like most Eurasian Jays, especially the males, Lisbon is also a good mimic. So it’s not clear whether he really loves Nicky, although he certainly likes it when she gives him a worm.

If he loves anyone, it’s probably Rome, his longtime mate. Lisbon and Rome, both eight years old, have been together since they were just two. They share a wired enclosure out here at the edge of Madingley, a peaceful, manicured English village a few miles west of Cambridge.

Clayton, 53, moved to Cambridge University about 16 years ago, around the time when she was becoming an international science superstar for her investigations into avian intelligence. As part of the deal, the university agreed to construct several aviaries at its Madingley annex according to Clayton’s specifications. They’re not fancy, but the birdcages include plenty of space for the captives to fly around, play, and mate, as well as special compartments where they collaborate with Clayton in state-of-the-art bird cognition experiments. Today the aviaries house about 70 birds, including Eurasian Jays, Western Scrub-Jays, and Rooks, all members of the corvid family. At night, the caws and kuks can be heard over much of the village.

Read the rest of the Eurasian Jay article here. Below, Common Ravens:

After more than three decades working as a desert tortoise biologist in the Mojave, Tim Shields began experiencing uncontrollable impulses to chase Common Ravens. While walking tortoise plots he’d surveyed for years, he’d see a black blur drop to the ground a half-mile away. His mind would flash on piles of palm-sized, picked-clean tortoise shells beneath electrical towers, and he’d tear off in a frenzied, and inevitably doomed, attempt to prevent the would-be killer from snatching one of his beloved subjects. “I’d run toward it like some crazy, possessed man,” he says. “I couldn’t stop myself.”

Shields had become morbidly convinced that ravens would finish off the ancient animals in whose company he’s now spent 38 of his 60 years. As a young field grunt decades earlier, he would see 80 or more tortoises a week. He documented males head-bobbing and ramming each other in testosterone-fueled frenzies, females munching on magenta beavertail cactus flowers, couples copulating in the morning sun. The creatures were already in decline at that point, largely due to habitat destruction and the pet trade. At the same time, raven populations were swelling.

If witnessing the torts’ slow decline was disquieting, what happened next was devastating. A respiratory disease spread through tortoise populations in the late 1980s, and by the early 2000s the illness had slashed most of those populations by 80 percent or more. The disease eventually waned and tortoise protections increased, but Shields’s surveys continued to turn up the raven-pecked shells of juveniles, each broken carapace another blow to the species’ survival. At one site in 2000 his team found 30 live tortoises and 398 carcasses. “All I was doing was taking careful notes on a quiet catastrophe,” he says. “It broke my heart. I knew I had to find some way to deal with ravens.”

Read the rest of the Common Raven article here. Below, American Crows:

The crows in your neighborhood know your block better than you do. They know the garbage truck routes. They know which kids drop animal crackers and which ones throw rocks. They know the pet dogs, and they might even play with the friendly ones. If you feed them, they probably not only recognize you but your car as well, and they might just leave you trinkets in return. These birds live their lives intertwined with ours, carefully observing us even as most of us barely take note of them. That’s how they survive, and they’re good at it: In recent decades the American Crow has taken over our suburbs, and even moved into the hearts of our big cities. As we’ve reshaped the landscape, we’ve created an ideal environment for an animal that is canny and perceptive enough to exploit our riches.

Exactly how the crow mind recognizes the opportunities we unwittingly provide is mostly an open question, says University of Washington wildlife biologist John Marzluff, who has studied corvids and their behavior for more than 35 years. He’s collected countless stories over the decades about crows’ complex social lives, including how they play, deceive each other, hold “funerals” around their dead, and seemingly learn from one another—even banding together to mob humans who have somehow wronged one of their own. Marzluff has a knack for figuring out how to quantify these intriguing behaviors in rigorous scientific experiments. By testing how the birds remember, communicate, and learn, his team is gaining insights into why crows are so street-smart and how they manage to thrive in our world. “Being open to possibility is important, so that you don’t miss really interesting new things that nobody thought these birds could do,” Marzluff says.

Read the rest of the American Crow article here. Thanks to the Audubon Society and Magazine for making the reporting of this fascinating research possible!

2 thoughts on “Audubon Focuses on Corvids in Latest Issue

  1. The poster reminds me of a day in early spring when I was walking a dog in a riverside park in my hometown of Calgary (Canada). We heard a cacophony of birds and came across a a tall tree filled with an assortment of corvids – jays, crows and magpies – screeching loudly. In their midst, nonplussed, sat a great horned owl.

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