Monday, February 01, 2010

The intelligence and vanity of rooks

click photo to enlarge
It is said that among the birds of the world some of the most intelligent are members of the crow family (Corvidae). New Caledonia crows (Corvus moneduloides) have been observed whittling twigs and leaves then using them to poke into holes to extract insects and grubs which they then ate. They've even been fitted with "tail-cams" and had their activities filmed. Some researchers claim that crows can count up to 3 or 4, though since they also think parrots can count to 6, that isn't quite the ringing endorsement of their intelligence that it might at first appear. However, experiments have shown that crows can equate certain sounds with types of food, and though they aren't quite up there with Pavlov and his dogs, it does indicate a rudimentary intelligence. As does the action of Swedish crows that follow the fishermen who fish through holes in frozen lakes. The crows tug repeatedly on lines left at the holes until a caught fish is brought out on to the ice to be eaten.

But, whilst there is plenty of documented evidence of the intelligence of crows, there is little concerning their vanity. I do know that jackdaws (Corvus monedula) will steal gold rings, jewels, silver paper, in fact any small shiny object, and that collections of such stuff are often found near their nests. But that excepted I'm not aware of any other narcissistic activity. Except for one that I stumbled upon the other day. When I was in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, walking past an old cinema - the Picture Drome that dates from 1920 - I looked up and noticed a rook (Corvus frugilegus) perched on the top of the remains of a weather vane. "Why was it there?" I wondered. Then it dawned on me. On its flights around the town it must have noticed the brass cockerels on top of the weather vanes of the churches. Being an intelligent (and aspirational) species it clearly felt that rooks would look so much better at the pinnacle of a building than a common farmyard fowl, so it was demonstrating this incontrovertible fact to all who cared to look. It had a friend with whom it had obviously been sharing this theory (see it lower down in the photograph), and when one grew tired of gripping the top of the metal pole, the other bird took over the modelling duties.

So there we have it, this photograph of a weather vane is concrete proof that crows are not only intelligent but vain!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 150mm (300mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/320
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On