'Encounters with the Wise Guys' of Nature

Canadian nature writer Candace Savage speaks about her book Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys. Part science, part poetry, it's been called a celebration of crow consciousness.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

On a cool, crisp fall morning, there may be lots of birds around, but the call that's most likely to come screeching through your bedroom window is this one.

(Soundbite of crow)

ELLIOTT: Nature writer Candace Savage has a new appreciation of the sometimes annoying but highly intelligent and seemingly omnipresent crow. She joins us from the Canadian Broadcasting Studios in Saskatoon.

Hello.

Ms. CANDACE SAVAGE (Author, "Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys"): Hello.

ELLIOTT: Your new book "Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys" is really very lovely. It has lots of beautiful drawings and block prints and even photographs of these birds. You know, I don't think most people would look at the crow quite the way that you do.

Ms. SAVAGE: Well, maybe not until they read the book. But you have to admit it's pretty persuasive. What I've had the fun of putting together is reports on research that's been done in the last 10 years into the personal lives and even the minds of crows and ravens, and there's a lot more going on than we would ever have imagined.

ELLIOTT: You write that for their size, crows are among the brainiest organisms on Earth. You say they outclass not only other birds but also most mammals?

Ms. SAVAGE: In terms of body-to-brain ration, crows are way up there with dolphins, chimpanzees and really close to us.

ELLIOTT: How do you know that they're smart? I mean, what tips you off to know that, because they have this big brain, that it's working?

Ms. SAVAGE: Well, that's the $64,000 question, of course, because how can we know for sure? But when crows are presented with challenges that have been presented to chimpanzees, say, they do remarkably well. For example, there's one setup in which the researchers put a little bucket of food at the bottom of a glass tube. This little bucket had a handle, and the only way you could get the food was to put down a tool with a hook on the end, a piece of wire that had been bent into a hook. If you reached down into the glass tube with that tool, then you could hook the handle of the bucket of food and pull it up.

Now what the researchers set out to do was to see if New Caledonian crows could distinguish between straight tools and hooked tools. What happened was one day one of the crows in this experiment flew away with the only hooked tool, leaving the experimental crow, whose name happened to be Betty, with just a straight piece of wire. Betty went up to the apparatus, looked at it with her--cocked her head, looked in very closely and put one end of the straight piece of wire under the tape at the base of the apparatus, moved her body around until she'd bent it into a lovely curved shape. She picked it up by one end, flew over to the apparatus, put her hooked tool down into the tube and pulled out the bucket and, presto, dinner was served.

ELLIOTT: So not only can they distinguish between which tool to use; they can come up with their own tool if need be.

Ms. SAVAGE: And she'd never before seen anyone bend wire. As far as they knew, she'd never had anything like wire to work with. But she solved the problem.

ELLIOTT: I'd like for you to read for us, if you would, a poem that's among the writings that you've included in your book. It's called "The Three Crows."

Ms. SAVAGE: Right. This is an Old English ballad, and here's how it goes. `There were three crows sat on a tree, and they were as black as they could be. Said one old crow unto his mate, "What shall we do for something to eat?" There lies a horse on yonder's plain who's by some cruel butcher slain. We'll perch ourselves on his backbone and eat his eyeballs one by one.'

ELLIOTT: It's a pretty dark image of a crow in that poem, and that's something that we're seeing a lot right now. It's Halloween weekend, and you're seeing the crow pop up on the seasonal aisle at stores and some people have them in their scary front-yard displays. Where does that come from, that crows are a little bit scary?

Ms. SAVAGE: Well, it probably simply comes from the fact that they're raucous and they eat dead things. They're scavengers, which, in the great scheme of things, is a, you know, very useful trait. But it can be a little creepy.

ELLIOTT: You know, even in kids' movies, that image comes through. I think about "Snow White" when the queen is trying to poison Snow White with the apple, there's this, like, crow that sits there and watches her and sort of follows and goes along with her, almost as if to signal us that this is the evil part.

Ms. SAVAGE: Ooh, yes. Well, people used to take the--all these dark associations very seriously. There was a--you know, probably many cases, but at least one I came across in Scotland where people became persuaded that a spectral raven had entered a church. And they were prepared to kill, to sacrifice a child, if a servant girl hadn't intervened. And eventually they took the roof off of this building to let the evil spirit out. So people in some times and places have taken that sensation very, very much to heart.

ELLIOTT: Now despite that cultural image that the crow is somehow evil or a bad omen, there seem to be a lot of crow people out there. I think you discovered while researching this book that there's a lot of people that feel that you do. You say there's entire Internet sites devoted just to this subject.

Ms. SAVAGE: There are. And the reason I wrote this book is that 10 years ago I wrote a book called "Bird Brains," and after that--which--it deals with a similar subject. And after that, people kept sending me their crow stories. They would send me the pictures of their albino raven, or they would tell me about the crows they saw in the park who were bowing to one another in this mysterious way. So, yes, there are lots of people out there who are fascinated by crows.

ELLIOTT: Nature writer Candace Savage. Her new book is called "Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys."

Thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. SAVAGE: Oh, my pleasure.

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