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Friday 20 July 2018

Stared down by a jackdaw with an eye on my breakfast - the jackdaw won

The jackdaw looking through the windscreen
The jackdaw looking through the windscreen

Anthony McGeehan

Intelligence is a slippery subject, tricky to define and tricky to measure. One psychologist describes it as 'the capacity to learn by experience'; another declares it to be 'the capacity to acquire capacity'.

In birds, intelligence is fundamental to surviving in the environment. Because birds are found throughout the planet, they have, over time, mastered all habitats - even human surroundings.

Members of the crow family are reputed to be the avian equivalent of Mensa. Some aspects of their behaviour are play. Ravens have been photographed in the Welsh mountains taking it in turns to flip onto their back and slide down a snow-bank. In Japan, crows wanting to break open walnuts learnt to drop the food among traffic at pedestrian crossings, wait for someone to use the crossing, thereby halting traffic and enabling the food - crushed by traffic - to be retrieved in safety.

Ebony masterminds in New Guinea fashion twigs into the shape of fish-hooks to extract grubs from inside logs. Here in Ireland, 'clever dick' tactics seem to chime with the national crow character. These days filling stations serve both fuel and food. The latter has come to the notice of jackdaws in several locations.

One, a busy truck-stop, is on the outskirts of Sligo. The place bustles in the early morning. Emerging with tea in one hand and a croissant in the other, I was clocked by a feathered vigilante.

I sat behind the wheel and bit off a corner of my breakfast. The jackdaw, perched on a wiper blade inches from my face, stared me out.

I decided to give it an end of my croissant - but only when I had finished the rest. I continued eating. It continued to make me feel like Ebenezer Scrooge. I gave in. I broke off 'its' breakfast and, poking an arm out the window, tossed it onto the windscreen. The food skidded into the groove between the passenger-side wiper and bonnet. The jackdaw leapt to retrieve it. Alas, the piece settled out of sight and inaccessible.

Forlorn, it stood and peered at its would-be treat. I felt awful. Rather than hand over more, I tried to 'rescue' the trapped bit. I hit the wipers then stopped them in mid-travel, thereby (I hoped) revealing the croissant.

The jackdaw had another look. No joy. I concluded that the titbit was unattainable. The jackdaw hopped back to its interrogator's position, standing on the driver's side wiper blade.

I sensed it wanted me to turn personal shopper and get another croissant. I thought about this, but decided to drive off and hope the movement of the car might dislodge the cargo. I started the engine. Well, that was a chequered flag. Faster than Usain Bolt, the jackdaw jumped over to where the food was, grabbed it and was off! In other words, it was playing with me all along. Maybe it is time to place bird intelligence below Spock - but above humans.

Anthony McGeehan is the author of Birds: Through Irish Eyes and Birds of the Homeplace with Julian Wyllie

Sunday Independent

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