Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Quoth the raven, "lookin' good!"

I have weird bird karma. I've discovered a drowned starling in a bucket in my yard, been pecked in the head by an angry magpie defending her nest, and had a kamikaze robin hit my kitchen window full blast. A few months ago, on a walk in the Berkeley Hills with my daughter, we were in the middle of our 59th conversation about whether she should dump her dullard boyfriend when we were interrupted by a loud tap-tap-tapping coming from a sixties-modern wood house just above us.

The house had a huge picture window of mirrored glass, to take advantage of the choice Bay view while protecting the owners' privacy. Perched on the ledge of that window was an enormous raven, locked in spellbound interaction with her reflection. She pecked repeatedly on the glass and then suddenly stopped – as did the bird in the mirror. When the raven abruptly cocked her head to the left, her reflection followed in perfect synchrony. Mesmerized, the raven kept coming up with more tricks as she watched her doppelganger imitate her every move. I claim no scientific expertise. I realize I am anthropomorphizing and an ornithologist might say I was full of malarkey. Yet it seemed, to my untrained and undisciplined eye, as though the raven understood that the big, black, shiny-feathered bird in the window was indeed herself.

I thought no more about this rather wonderful animal encounter until recently, when I came upon a crazed ... swallow, perhaps? (Sorry, I am not a birder, but I can learn). Caught in a dance of death with the side mirror of a car, he kept charging the glass and smashing his little beak against his reflection. Then he would swoop around and rest on top of the mirror for two seconds before attacking again, over and over, like some Avian Sisyphus. I waved my arms and made noise to try and distract him, but the poor bird was intent on destroying his nemesis in the mirror. I gave it up to nature - it would have taken a butterfly net to catch him and break the spell. But I had to conclude that the raven had it all over this little birdbrain (Yes, I'm going there, it's my damn blog).

I knew some birds were highly intelligent. A woman I used to work with had a pet conure. A rain forest native, he liked to shower with his mistress. Whenever she got in the way of his "rain", he signaled for her to move by gently pecking her foot. I read Alex and Me, Irene Pepperberg's book about her amazing experiments with Alex, the parrot genius. To briefly summarize his exploits, this brilliant bird could form 3-word, intentional sentences, such as "Alex want corn". He sorted blue and green blocks by shape and color. He could count up to seven, and unlike the circus horse who'll keep tapping his hoof 'til his trainer gives him the signal to stop, Alex understood the concept of counting.

I looked up ravens. Turns out, ravens, crows, jays, and magpies are all corvids and they are the brainiacs of the bird world, not including parrots who may be as or more intelligent depending on your school of thought. There are definitely some who think ravens have figured out that the bird in the mirror is them. This is very advanced animal thinking - even dogs don't understand this. Elephants do.

I was fortunate enough, on both of my walks, to stumble upon two live demonstrations of what animal behaviorists call the Mirror Test: Observing what a given species does when confronted with its reflection. Can a creature even "read" the image in the mirror or does it just see a play of light and shape? Does the animal think it is looking at a fellow member of its species, like that single-minded swallow so determined to destroy his rival in the car mirror? Is there evidence of a higher level of thinking, as with the raven, where the test subject realizes "that's me"? And is it really the pinnacle of awareness to peer into that mirror and think, "That's me, and these love handles have got to go"?


Films to rent

Winged Migration

The Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Books to Read

Mind of the Raven

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