Saturday 29 April 2017

Wise crows stash food for winter days

The crow: A clever bird
The crow: A clever bird

Joe Kennedy

Hibernia, the wintry land, was well named by the Romans. They had a brief look-see and cleared off back to Britannia.

They didn't wander too far there, either. Hadrian built a wall (like the one Mr Trump is planning in the US) to keep out those savage, hairy Scots Gaels.

It could be colder here now, I imagine. It seemed to be so in the past. But, for those who might wonder where all that global warming has been wafting, can many recall times of frozen river and lake-sides, pond skating and that deadly footpath sliding practised by children?

Youthful times were of testing the durability of ice ponds, which had to be partly smashed to allow cattle to drink - hobnailed boots were vital. Frogs seemed to be miracle survivors, though birds were not. They could be picked up, frozen stiff.

Schoolboy savages (I was one!) thawed and roasted starlings, lapwings and pigeons over ember glows on stone hearths against field walls. The thin flesh was white and tasty. Someone had salt in a matchbox - and it was not to shake on a bird's tail.

Cold for birds? In 1925 - a bit before my time - a flock of about 300 starving starlings rooted out the emergency work of glaziers by devouring the fresh linseed oil putty that had been firmly pressed to hold new glass in windows shattered by the weather in Scarborough in north- eastern England, which had experienced 10 days of extreme weather.

Starlings and pigeons might once have been occasional rural fare but crows were a definite no-no. They usually don't starve in hard weather. Corvids - rooks, jackdaws, ravens, magpies and jays - are great survivors because they are wise hoarders for the days when there is nothing to eat.

Jays have a reputation for burying caches of acorns during the good woodland times and rooks too can do a bit of stone-bashing to break kernels. Jays have been known to use tree forks to hold nuts for smashing. They are clever creatures. In a US lab study, a caged jay tore a piece of paper from the base of the cage, rolled it in a ball and pushed it through the bars to sweep up seeds on a ledge outside to bring within reach.

Crows, in the good times, gather food for hoarding under clumps of rough grass and leaves, or burying in the ground and covering with stones. Corvids have a poor sense of smell but remarkable memories and at the appropriate time can locate their buried treasure with ease. Rooks secrete nuts in autumn and months later can quickly locate them.

Jays can go one better - they can glue insects and bits of carrion to tree bark with their saliva, which holds the morsels firm for winter snacks when snow is all around.

I don't want to think about magpies! They may have an attractive livery and be remarkably resourceful - but I am not a fan. I have seen blackbird chicks dragged from nests with distraught mothers trying to save them and have thought of an old Remington bolt-action, four-ten 'garden gun'. But that's all in the long ago and far away, much like eating the flesh of wild birds.

Sunday Independent

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in Life