True Tales of the Great Flock

True Tales of the Great Flock

In my series, the Crow Nickels, the Great Flock refers to all birds, not just the crows or even the extended family of corvids. Lady Obsidian, the leader of the Sky Council, runs the Feathered Forum twice a year (on the solstices) to listen to reports from various species. Hunters of the Feather is fiction, but birds are doing more than many people realize. Here are a few true tales about various members of the Great Flock.

Whistling Kite by JJ Harrison (Wikipedia commons), Haliastur sphenurus 2 – Pitt Town Lagoon, New South Wales, Australia. One of the species considered a “firehawk”

In a report in National Geographic, we learn that birds are starting fires! “In interviews, observations, and ceremonies dating back more than a century, the indigenous peoples of Australia’s Northern Territory maintain that a collective group of birds they call “firehawks” can control fire by carrying burning sticks to new locations in their beaks or talons. …The idea is that these birds of prey use fires to help find food—making easy meals out of insects and other small animals trying to flee the blaze.”

Most people know about the terrible fires that have been happening with regularity in Australia and California, which are much worse because of the climate crisis. Having recently experienced the Bighorn Fire in Tucson – I could see fires outside my window; we had to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice; the smoke was terrible for weeks – I have a lot of respect for fire. But at least in Australia, we’re not the only species responsible for some of the raging flames.

Bighorn Fire just north of Tucson, view from my terrace. Victoria Grossack

Most people assume only humans use fire, but apparently it isn’t so (and the birds may be just as irresponsible, or even more so, than our species). What else are they doing?

According to some they may be making art. And I don’t just mean the art of bower birds, used to attract mates, which you could argue has evolved and is purely instinctual:

Bower bird construction, decorated with what appears to be blue straws and blue bottle caps

The way that bower birds adapt their decoration to available supplies seems like a sign of intelligence to me!

Stuart Dahlquist: Crow art?

Stuart Dahlquist wrote on Twitter how his family had been feeding a family of crows – and in thanks, the crows left them some can tabs threaded on pine twigs. Now, crows and ravens have long been known to leave little gifts of gratitude for human feeders, and even to find trinkets for humans who lost things – but this looks like art to me.

Sometimes birds perform better than people. And not just at things like flying, where they have an obvious advantage. From a Harvard study:

What happens when an African grey parrot goes head-to-head with 21 Harvard students in a test measuring a type of visual memory? Put simply: The parrot moves to the head of the class.

Harvard researchers compared how 21 human adults and 21 6- to 8-year-old children stacked up against an African grey parrot named Griffin in a complex version of the classic shell game.

So how did the parrot fare? Griffin outperformed the 6- to 8-year-olds across all levels on average, and he performed either as well as or slightly better than the 21 Harvard undergraduates on 12 of the 14 of trial types.

African grey parrot, Wikipedia Commons, L. Miguel Bugalio Sánchez (not Griffin)

And sometimes birds help other species. This crow in Latvia is getting a hedgehog off of a busy street.

We have seen the use of fire, creative art, putting Harvard students to the test, and a good dose of compassion. Maybe bird brains are more developed than many acknowledge.

Sol wondered from what kind of eggs humans hatched. They had no beaks; how did they break through their shells? With their little noses? How long did it take for their eyes to open?Hunters of the Feather

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