Larry Penny, who was the Director of Natural Resources for the Town of East Hampton, was good enough to reintroduce me to one of East Hampton’s treasures when it comes to crow behavior: Stuart Vorpahl, also a staunch defender of our fishing rights and access to the beach by the Dongan Patent of 1686.
Stuart raised many crows from fluffy nestlings when he was a boy, more than 60 years ago. Around the 20th of May, he would go out and find runts of the litter, as this bird usually doesn’t survive the attacks of his siblings (common in the bird world, fratricide is often the answer to too many mouths to feed).
He raised four at a time when he was in the 6th grade, and they would follow him and his pals to school, from Oak St. in Amagansett to the schoolhouse, about a 10-minute walk. He would return every day about 2:30 p.m., and soon the birds learned to meet him at the schoolhouse and escort the gang of boys back to Stuart’s house, showing up minutes before school ended. After a while they started coming to the window of his classroom and pecking at the windowpane next to Stuart’s seat, like they did at the kitchen window at home where he fed them. This did not amuse the teacher, who knew whose crows these were.
When they figured out where Stuart’s bedroom window was, they spoke with a clicking sound, which is a crow’s way of recognition and salutation, then they gently tapped on the windowpane so he wouldn’t be late feeding them. They would start this process at the kitchen window, but if they got no response, they learned to go upstairs.
The most important thing when teaching a crow, Stuart believes, is you can’t put them in a pen. You have to treat them like a house pet, and they will become as tame as a dog, but smarter. He said Fish Crows are a different matter—they will not learn, period! It’s like trying to teach a pig English: it’s a waste of your time, and it just annoys the pig.
Another indication of crows’ high I.Q.s, are the things they do just for fun, like taking clothespins off clotheslines just to see the laundry fall. One crow was seen taking a clothespin apart into three pieces, then just flying away. Stuart came up with an answer: he leaned a BB gun against the clothesline pole, and they never touched the laundry or the pins thereafter. He figures “all crows are born knowing about guns.” Walk into a field full of crows with a broomstick that is fractions of inch skinnier than a single-barrel shotgun, and those crows won’t move. But walk out with a shotgun…
Another example of fun for crows is stealing shiny objects. Stuart told me of a mechanic friend who was constantly losing stainless washers and bolts to crows coming by and stealing them. Knowing crows, he told the friend to follow the crow the next time he stole something, as they usually hide their shiny loot in the same place. Sure enough, he saw the crow go to the gutter spout by his garage, and when he opened it up he found dozens of missing shiny parts to motors he had fixed over the years. After that, if he was ever missing something shiny, he knew where to look. An even stranger habit some crows have is called “false caching,” explained in a book called: In the Company of Crows and Ravens (Yale Press). Crows gain “status” by showing their group a shiny object, then turning their backs, making digging motions as if they’re burying the object, then flying away with that object in their beak and burying it somewhere else, while the other birds try to unearth it where it’s not.
Stuart had one crow who would cache bits of swordfish treats he gave him in their backyard, but the family border collie liked swordfish too, and when he tried to dig it up, the crow would punish him with whacks on the skull and tugs on the tail until he gave up digging; soon after the collie would forget where the bits of swordfish were buried, but the crow would not.
Another crow of his was taught to say the word “Help!” and around sunset he would roost in a tree at a busy intersection of Stuart’s neighborhood, and bother his neighbor, who kept coming out of his house to see if anybody had an accident on the corner. When he realized it was a crow, he went right to Stuart’s house, and soon Mr. Vorpahl came up with a fix: he taught the crow to say, “Help, Crow!” and the neighbor knew not to even get out of his chair.
The society crows make, scientists say, is as complex as primates in some ways. Year-old males often stay around, helping their parents raise the next clutch of chicks. In other words, uncles are baby-sitting nieces and nephews. I know human families that don’t do that much.