Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dead Crow

This has nothing to do with my art but wanted to make a note of it somewhere, so here's as good a place as any.

This morning as I left my house to go to my day job (about 6:30am) I immediately noticed the local crows raising quite a racket. Not all that unusual, but they were swarming right around my house circling around and cawing while others sat silently perched on telephone lines and the branches of trees. I've always liked crows. They're exceptionally intelligent birds. So I stopped and watched them for a bit out of curiosity. Was there a hawk? A bunch of food? Had they roosted in a tree closer than usual and were just starting their morning routine?

Then I noticed the dead crow in the middle of the street.

It was clearly the center of all this strange attention. I saw no obvious marks on the crow nor any blood, but its eyes were gray (presumably the nictitating membrane had closed in death). It was fascinating. Crows are social creatures and the death of this one crow was creating quite a scene. I couldn't linger too long but even as I did the activity was lessening. Was it grief? Too anthropomorphic an emotion probably. But was it some intense reaction to a death of one of their own? Another more morbid possibility occurred to me... Had it been an execution?

Surprisingly little is known about crows. This is changing of course. Their intelligence has drawn a great deal of interest in the last couple of decades. Many have now heard of the tool using crows of New Caledonia. Interestingly their intelligence stems from an evolved portion of their brains that is completely different from the frontal cortex in mammals. So theirs is a truly alien intelligence. But there are a lot of other problems studying crows. Without capturing and examining each one it is impossible to identify the age, sex or the relationships of various individuals, making their social behavior pretty opaque.

But my notion of an execution is not without precedent. I have a copy of John Marzluff's book "In the Company of Crows and Ravens" where he discusses reports of "crow courts" in crows form large griups and essentially take turns pecking one individual to death. The individual is often reported showing little or no sign of resistance. The rarity of these occurences of course makes them impossible to study or verify scientifically and often dismissed as folktales, but anecdotal eye witness accounts are plentiful and consistent enough to warrant more serious consideration. Who knows. But I'll continue to pay attention and watch what these fascinating and intelligent birds do.