An intriguing report from a fellow Wharfedale Naturalist the other day made me quite envious. Her bird table is visited by a pair of crows. She had put out some leftover spaghetti (cooked first, of course) which she’d cut into manageable lengths. The first crow took some and flew down to eat it: the second crow behaved differently. He crammed his beak absolutely full, flew to the flowerbed, searched up and down for a convenient hole and then rammed the food inside and carefully buried it with his beak. The next day the same bird (or, perhaps, I suppose, his partner) took a large piece of chicken skin and went through the same procedure, methodically burying it in the flowerbed. Was this unusual behaviour? I had certainly never seen it.
Corvids, the group to which crows belong, are known to be very intelligent birds: I have observed magpies in my garden sensibly softening hard crusts of bread by dunking them in the birdbath, and we all know that, in Autumn, jays are experts at caching acorns and, more importantly, remembering where they’ve hidden them. This is Spring, however, and the crow’s behaviour was temporary caching rather than storing. Fridge rather than freezer, you might say! It’s the kind of thing I’ve seen foxes do when presented with more food than they can eat. Or, if you watched the TV Winterwatch programme, you may remember seeing a pine marten carefully carrying off an egg and secreting it among tree roots for later consumption. Here was a bird behaving in a very mammal-like way.
I rang a friend who’s very interested in bird-behaviour to ask his opinion. Yes, he said, some species of corvids did cache food. Ravens had been observed doing it and he himself had experience of a magpie doing the same. He remembered a pair of crows nesting near his garden. Each morning he took out the food and called “ Hello, crow!” in a croaky voice. Quite soon a crow was answering his call with a pretty good though hoarse approximation of, “Hello!” This reminded me of an old friend’s story about his father who had reared an abandoned jackdaw chick. The bird went everywhere with him, and liked to sit on the goalposts while he played football. Whenever my friend’s father scored a goal the bird would fly into the air calling “Jack, Jack, Jack!” triumphantly. A pretty smart family, the corvids!