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Ancient Wisdom

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The Unseen Enemy
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Term "Bird Brain" Taking On Whole New Meaning

By James Donahue

Experiments by Bernd Heinrich and Thomas Bugnyar with young ravens at the University of Vermont found that these birds not only will follow the gaze of a human located across the room behind a barrier, but will sometimes look over or around the barrier in an effort to see what the person is looking at.

The experiments suggested that the birds are conscious to understanding another creature’s thoughts and can be curious enough to seek more information.

A second study conducted by Bugnyar, published in Animal Cognition, suggests that the ravens also have mastered the art of deception.

Using color coded film containers with easy-to-remove caps and filled with cheese, two ravens were taught to figure out which color code contained food, then pry open the correct container and eat whatever was found inside.

During the experiment, one bird proved to be quick at learning which code lead to the food. The other raven, however, was more aggressive and simply moved in on the smarter bird, stealing the food from it.

Bugnyar was surprised, however, when the smart bird developed a trick that misled the aggressive one. He opened empty containers. While the aggressive bird was rummaging around trying to find the food in them, he went to the food and took it for himself.

To carry the story even farther, the guise only worked for a while. Soon the second bird began doing the work and choosing the correct color code that led to food, Bugnyar reported.

The experiments reminded me of a game I played with some birds on the open air patio of an apartment we once rented while living near Show Low, Arizona.

We lived on the edge of the Apache-Sitgrieve National Forest that consisted of thousands of acres of beautiful ponderosa pine. Thus wild life was always in abundance around our home.

That winter we began feeding peanuts to the squirrels that lived in the trees, and before long, found that the jays and other birds enjoyed the nuts as well.

One spring day, as I was sitting in a lawn chair and enjoying the fresh mountain air on that patio, I was visited by three little woodpeckers that landed on a railing not ten feet from where I sat. They were old friends and it was obvious they came for nuts that I just happened to have in my pocket.

I tossed a few nuts to them and the birds quickly took them off into the nearby trees to pry open and consume. Then they returned for more.

That morning I decided to experiment with my feathered friends and find out just how trusting they were. Each time I threw a nut, I made it land closer and closer to where I was sitting. As the birds got closer and closer, they became more and more wary, watching me closely for any sudden moves before they whisked in and snapped up the prize.

Eventually the nut got too close. Lying no more than five feet away, the birds decided it was too close for them to risk as long as I looked at them and at the nut. They made a few brave rushes toward the prize, but always turned away before reaching it.

Suddenly I heard a loud rapping noise on the wooden exterior wall behind me. When I turned, I found one of the woodpeckers pecking on the wall and making this noise. When I turned back again, the nut was gone.

Those birds worked together that morning, diverting my gaze just long enough for them to steal the nut near my feet.

I remember a losing confrontation my father had with a very smart crow when I was a child growing up in Michigan. My father liked to garden, and one spring while dropping seeds of corn, beans and peas in rows, he was surprised to find the bird following along, eating the seeds as fast as he was dropping them.

Dad tried a lot of tricks, attempting to frighten off this crow. But even when he got his seeds covered, the bird managed to dig them up. He mounted a scare crow in the garden, which the bird used as a fine perch from which to view any further plantings.

The battle went on for several days and I clearly remember how much anger that crow raised in my father. The last laugh came the night the bird dropped on his bedroom window, and pranced back and forth as my father was preparing to turn in for the day.

The family found the whole affair quite funny although at the time my father had difficulty seeing the joke. I am proud to say that Dad did not resort to the gun in this case. Indeed, that bird was too smart and too clever to have been shot anyway.

Over the years I have learned something else about crows. When a gun appears, they disappear. If Dad had known that, it would probably have been an easy victory over the clever crow. All he would have had to do is step out of doors with a rusty old musket in his hands, and the crow problem would have been solved.