Rats, crows and me

I’ve always had a special relationship with these creatures, especially crows, who have some amazing abilities.

You may know my story about ratting on a chicken farm with my friend Brutus, a little dog that turned from a spoilt family pet into the ultimate rodent killer. But rats were also friends. After trying mice, snakes and birds, with the children growing up, our best pet was a white male rat, appropriately named Basil, whom son Martin looked after. He was a gentle creature, but when we were visited by the Polgar family — three sisters who are the strongest female chess players in history — they were all terrified of Basil. Except Judit, the strongest of the three, who would take Basil up and try to force her sisters and her mother to pet him.

In this picture you can see the obvious affection between Judy and Basil (sitting on his favourite place, Martin’s shoulder). It was not a long-lasting relationship. You see, the rat was used to certain rituals. Every morning when Martin came down for breakfast he would give Basil a morsel of rat food — like a piece of leftover pizza, salami or a Dorito. Basil would eagerly wait for the treat, pacing around in his cage in anticipation. The animal had, however, one concern in life: that some day his owner would stick the food into the cage and then suddenly change his mind and pull it out again. So when it appeared between the bars Basil would grab it with both front feet and teeth, and lie on his back clutching the morsel until Martin moved away and the coast was clear to roll over and enjoy the treat.

One morning it was Judit who came down first. She went over to Basil and, with the words “Hello little ratty”, she stuck her finger into the cage. The rest is too gruesome to narrate. Judy put a plaster over the wound and was convinced that she was going to die. She didn’t tell anyone what had happened, until the next day, when it became obvious that she would live and the bite was not so bad after all.

Basil lived with us for two years. He was a dear family friend and could roam the house at will. Rats are great pets — they are intelligent, inquisitive and bonding. We were quite sad when Basil was gone. Not the same as with the vicious bandicoots in the story mentioned above (here again, if you missed the link). At the time, in the chicken houses, I would hunt them with a small airgun and the ultimate rat killer dog Brutus.

And then one day Farook, one of our best friends, who always helped to make our Asia trips interesting, brought me a real gun: a single-shot German Heckler & Koch, which sent small calibre bullets through the marauding rats with lethal efficiency. That instilled the fear of death in these previously self-satisfied creatures and ended their careers as chicken-feed thieves.

We come to the crows. I have had a close relationship with the Corvidae bird family. I have known them and have had contact with them all my life. Positive and negative.

This is a picture of me and a dear friend, a Corvus corax or Northern Raven that was completely tame and lived on a farm in northern Germany. It sat gladly on my shoulder while I walked around, sometimes gently pecking my hair, telling me that it was still there and that it liked me. A magnificent bird. I would feed it as instructed by the farmer. He raised chickens and had a great surplus of male chicks that had to be destroyed. He taught me how to take one, twist off its head and stuff the body into the beak of the raven. Perhaps this was the reason for its affection.

The common crow is amongst the smartest animals on earth, as I have myself witnessed, here from my working room window. And the smartest of the crowd are the New Caledonian crows, who are able to fashion tools and figure out which one they will be needing.

Watch this video and be prepare to be fascinated. There are plenty more to illustrate the point.

In earlier times my relationship with Corvus was not so harmonious or positive as described above. Unfortunately in many places city crows have become a pest. They are not unlike rats, which are smart and attentive, but in the wild and in bands or flocks (did you know the correct term is “murder of crows?”) both can become a serious nuisance. At a chicken farm in south India I saw this first-hand. There I watched women cleaning the chickens and cutting them up. Every few seconds they would shoo away crows, which were trying to steal pieces from the cutting boards. It was very tedious. I went over to them with my small air gun and shot a crow. Another visitor, Ken Pinto, saw this happen and said: “Wow, I did not know that was possible!” He lived in the region and knew that you couldn’t kill a crow with an airgun — they would never let you take a shot at them.

But I had learned the technique from the ever-educative Farook: you walk out with your gun pointing to the ground and see a crow out of the corner of your eye. Don’t look towards it, but point the gun in its general direction. The crow will go into a crouch, ready to fly away, but will not do so yet. Now you turn your eyes towards it, aim your gun properly and fire. You have less than a second for that. But if you are quick and accurate it can be done, as Mr Pinto now knows.

I used this strategy on the thieving crow at the chicken farm. Immediately the other crows flew up to the trees, where my airgun could not reach them. There they sat, cawing—until I went into the house. Then they descended on the chicken women and continued stealing bits and pieces. When I went out again, with or without the airgun, they immediately flew into the trees. Clearly they recognized me and knew the danger I posed.

A couple of weeks later I was at the same chicken farm and the crows were pestering the women in the same way. When they saw me they quickly flew into the trees, scolding. But this time I had Farook’s Heckler & Koch, and easily brought down a crow from its perch on the close-by tree. Now all the crows flew to more distant trees, and when I took a second shot it merely rustled the leaves. And the crows remained there, cawing alarm.

There was no way I could get any more crows. We drove home, and on the way, a few miles from the farm, we stopped at a little village for coffee and refreshments. I got into a chat with the villagers. They had seen my gun and urged me to shoot a water fowl for them — which I duly did. And they rejoiced in anticipation of the unexpected meal they would be having in the evening.

But what I want to tell you is this: when we arrived in the village and got out of the car, all the crows started cawing and retreated to distant trees just out of the range of my gun. Clearly a few had followed the car for all those miles and when I got out — without the gun at my side — they told the village crows that the dude in blue jeans has a killing instrument with a range of 200 metres. Okay, not explicitly that way, but they took perch just out of reach and started cawing from there. That made all the other crows to do the same — move out of range and sound the alarm.

One final episode and observation: some six weeks later I returned to the farm, this time carefully clad in completely different apparel. I was wearing a blue shirt and tan trousers, and had a cap on my head. When I got out of the car, with no gun in sight (the H&K was locked in the booth), it took less than a minute for the crows to sound the alarm and retreat to the distant trees. It was absolutely clear that they had recognized me — my face, not my clothes. And knew I had a killing stick with a 200 meter range. Now that is truly intelligent.

If you find some of this narrative implausible or exaggerated, watch this video by John Marzluff, author of Gift of the Crow. In it he conclusively demonstrates that crows are able to recognize human faces, and that they can pass on the knowledge to fellow crows.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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