Thursday, November 13, 2008

Smart birds

My dog loves walnuts, which are abundant at Gamone. Periodically, when she's feeling a bit hungry (which is most of the time), Sophia rambles down to the walnut trees and has a small feast. She has no trouble cracking the fruit open with her powerful jaws and then rummaging through the smashed mass for edible fragments. Then she comes back to the house with a single walnut clenched in her mouth, and settles down on the lawn to crack it open and eat it in an almost ritual style, as if there were something special about this particular walnut that she chose to bring back to the house, as a kind of trophy.

It doesn't take much, in Sophia's mind, for a perfectly ordinary act to be elevated to the status of a special event. For example, she can dart off constantly to various places in the vicinity of the house in order to piss and drop her turds. But, whenever Sophia realizes that I'm going to wander up the road and accompany her on such an excursion, our walk is transformed immediately into a Special Event, even though I might accompany her for no more than a hundred meters or so. She leaps around in joy and scrambles across the slopes, as if this were an extraordinary outing, while looking back from time to time to make sure that I'm still participating in our journey.

Although, as I said, Sophia is perfectly capable of breaking open walnuts on her own, she's happy if I can do the job for her. At Gamone, I have a constant stock of orange mesh bags full of fresh walnuts, which I use above all in my bread and cake making. I break the walnuts open using an ordinary steel hammer and a thick wooden cutting block that I brought back from Bangkok, many years ago. As soon as Sophia sees me sitting down alongside a bag of walnuts, the block and a hammer, she joins me, to wait for fallout. On such occasions, the average is one walnut kernel to Sophia for three into William's bowl.

When an animal has neither powerful nut-cracking jaws nor a master with a hammer, it has to rely upon other means, as reveled in this delightful Japanese video:

The other evening, Tineke and Serge evoked enthusiastically a recent TV documentary on the extraordinary cognitive capacities of the native crow from the island of New Caledonia, which has taught itself to find or even build tools (from pine leaves) to catch wood grubs.

[Click the image to visit the Wikipedia page about this fascinating bird.]

Professor Russell Gray, of Auckland, discusses the amazing cognitive talents of this bird in the following two videos:

If I were kind with regard to my lovely dog, I would say that my life with Sophia has made me more and more respectful, over recent years, of the engineering achievements and intellectual qualities of non-human animals. As I said to Tineke and Serge, I have become totally enraptured, on twilight evenings at Gamone, by the spectacle of the flight of bats. Please don't tell Sophia I said this, but I think this evolution in my regard is a consequence, above all, of my intense reading of the brilliant books of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. To do justice to everybody, let's conclude that I'm under the combined influence of Dawkins, Pinker and Sophia.


  1. Incredible video of the Japanese crow cracking nuts in the pedestrian walkway... or rather, figuring out how to use vehicular traffic to crack the nuts in the pedestrian walkway and run out when his light turned green! He could then grab up the broken nut bit and pieces without getting run over. Who would have thought it? This is amazing. Great entry, thanks for posting!

  2. In rural France William, as you know there are few pedestrian crossings. Driving yesterday, a crow cut things very fine diving down to collect a nut (I presume) and soaring up out of my path. It was very smart work.

    I like the crow family; always have.

  3. Me, too, I've always liked crows, because of their apparent awkwardness and slowness. They fly like cargo aircraft carrying military tanks. The swift creature I love most is a big solitary bird of prey perched on a pole or a wire in the middle of a wintry field, awaiting the movement of a field mouse. What quiet majesty!

  4. "...They fly like cargo aircraft carrying military tanks."

    Who would have thought that crows would be "poetry in motion." Yet that is what your words bring to mind!

  5. Yes William,

    I must admit I have spent time daydream about freedom whilst watching the many buzzards we have here in Haute Savoie, floating in the sky It is also nice to see them sometimes perched on a fence by the road; they are jolly big chaps aren't they!