An Impressive Encounter Of Cultural Learning In Corvids

Juvenile crow sitting on the fence

Animal culture describes the current theory of cultural learning in non-human animals through socially transmitted behaviours. This involves the social transmittance of a novel behavior, both among peers and between generations of the species concerned.

About six years ago I have been called for help as a fledgling crow has flown into a window in one of the enclosed courtyards of the hospital. When I arrived I found a concussed carrion crow fledgling being cold and wet. The bird also showed nutritional deficiencies and subsequently a poor plumage with many white primaries and secondaries. All these problems made it necessary to take the fledgling bird into our care to treat the immediate concussion issues but also to keep the bird for at least one year to allow a full moult into a new healthy plumage, which only happens once a year. Whilst assessing and securing the crow fledgling I have been closely watched and scolded at by the crow parents, and by another crow sitting in some distance on a roof.

Playing and interacting crows

Crows are territorial birds. The hospital grounds are forming the centre of the crow territory occupied by the pair of crows, whose fledgling I have been asked to rescue. As documened in the literature, the third crow is likely to be a male crow, who has been accepted by the territory holder pair to reside in the outskirts of the occupied territory helping them to defend their home. One year later I have been called again to rescue another crow fledgling which got stuck in an open hospital sewer canal. The poor bird was soaking wet and hypothermic and had to be taken into care as well. As the year before, the parents watched the incident and tried to defend their youngster.

Corvids Never Forget A Face

Ever since the first incident five years ago, as soon as I enter the hospital grounds to go to my work place, these three crows including their offspring will raise the alarm and at least one of the crows will accompany me until I enter one of the buildings and disappear from their sight. Interestingly, it does not matter what clothing I am wearing, they will easily identify me and recognise my face. Even youngsters born the years after the last incident will raise the alarm and join in, as soon as they become independent and are able to fly and follow me. The members of this extended crow family are also able to identify me when I stand seemingly at random behind one of the hospital windows watching them whilst they are doing their daily business.

Adult carrion crow sitting on the fence

This encounter, which demonstrates nicely cultural learning, shows clearly that information regarded as essential and worth keeping is communicated between family members, related and unrelated birds, even years after the actual incident. This lets us conclude that long living animals like crows have some sort of cultural heritage, which is being passed on to future generations. As it is also known that territorial carrion crows will also visit communal roosts, there is also the possibility to consider that some of this or other more essential and useful information of this cultural heritage will also be passed on even further.

A Close Up Encounter Of Animal Awareness

Carrion crow Boing Boing at his arrival.

This short story of carrion crow Boing Boing’s first encounter with another crow unknown to him, whist being introduced into our communal aviary, nicely illustrates what animal consciousness or awareness is about. Animal consciousness is the state of self-awareness within an animal, or of being aware of an external object or something within itself.

Carrion Crow Boing Boing

Boing Boing is a now six year old male carrion crow, who came into our care four years ago, when he started to cause behavioural problems to his previous carers. Boing Boing has been hand raised after he has been found orphaned as a youngster, also being at the time in a very poor condition. He is not releasable and a permanent resident, as he is suffering of a scissor beak, which makes it impossible for him to survive in the wild. Boing Boing would not be able to eat carrion, as his beak disorder will not allow him to tear his food into manageable pieces. We took over his care at the time carrion crows usually mature, and when they commonly show behavioural issues, in particular when held in captivity without companions, adequate housing and mental as well as physical stimulation.

Carrion crow Chili
Carrion crow Chili

Carrion Crow Chili

Chili is a young dominant male carrion crow, who has been found together with his sister Pepper after becoming orphans following the destruction of their nest during a storm. Another sibling died during this accident, but Chili and Pepper luckily survived, despite suffering of starvation, injuries and infections. Due to Chili’s personality being characterised by a strong will and determination, he grew up quickly and took on the vacant position of the territory holder. His sister Pepper is rather the opposite of Chili, having had considerable problems with her legs caused by calcium deficiencies. She is very gentle and shy, but also very observant and clever.

Animal Consciousness And Awareness

When we introduced Boing Boing into the communal aviary, Chili immediately came, which was not unexpected, to greet the new arrival. Boing Boing announced himself with a cawing display usually used by dominant birds or territory holders when arriving at the communal roost. During this display head and neck are held forward whilst neck and belly feathers are raised. Wings are usually closed and the tail is fanned out slightly. Whilst cawing, the head will be slowly lowered until the beak is touching the belly, and at the same time the nictitating membrane is drawn across the eye. Then the head will be moved up again back into the normal position, and the display begins again. Chili replied to this demonstration by immediately sleeking down his feathers to appear smaller and less aggressive, meaning that both birds have, without any aggression or even fight, just addressed and clarified their position in their crow society.

Carrion crow Boing Boing sitting on a perch in our communal aviary.
Carrion crow Boing Boing

But this was not the end of Boing Boing’s and Chili’s first encounter and communication. Both birds sat silently on the perch next to each other for more than a minute. Boing Boing was intensely looking around taking all the new information in, whilst Chili seemed unable to take his gaze of Boing Boing’s beak. Eventually Chili made his move by approaching Boing Boing and by gently and carefully examining Boing Boing’s beak bpy using his own beak. Boing Boing didn’t move, he did not even twitch. He allowed Chili to examen his beak. After another minute Chili stopped his assessment, now obviously having satisfied his curiosity, and then he eventually moved away from Boing Boing and flew off to continue with his usual business.

How To Successfully Rehabilitate A Wild Raven

Raven Zarathustra in her release aviary.

Zarathustra is an adult female raven, who we have rescued after being found unable to fly. The admission assessment showed an extensive bruise along the proximal end of radius and ulna of the left wing, but luckily no fractures have been found. We could only assume that she must have suffered some sort of impact trauma, most likely caused by a collision with a car. Otherwise Zarathustra showed no other signs of disease and was in a pristine condition.

Part of the usual treatment and rehabilitation programme is passive physiotherapy and controlled gradually increasing active exercise. Fractures, but also soft tissue injuries can cause secondary problems in birds like joint stiffness and contraction of ligaments and tendons, potentially rendering a bird permanently unable to fly and making him or her not releasable. Not unexpected, as in any sentient being, pain is an alarm bell which will dictate how extensive an injured body part will be actively used by the animal who has been inured. That also means that a bird will naturally not use the injured wing, or only to a certain degree, unless he or she is encouraged to do so. This is a well working mechanism, but to achieve best results early careful passive physiotherapy together with appropriate pain relief is often needed to avoid the complications mentioned above.

Female raven Zarathustra undergoing her admission assessment.
Raven Zarathustra

Depending on the birds compliance, personality and individual character there are basically two different ways of rehabilitating a bird by using passive and gradually increasing active physiotherapy. Unlike old fashioned rehabilitation approaches, which are still be taught at animal care courses, we do not avoid interacting with our patients. In fact, we heavily rely on a close bond based on trust, which helps us to achieve best results. The concrete treatment approach always depends on an individual assessment of the animal concerned. In rare cases it might be necessary though, to constrain the animal for the time needed to assess injuries, or to do physiotherapeutic exercises. This procedure is usually stressful, despite precautions being taken to minimise the impact on the bird.

Trust Is The Key Ingredient For A Successful Treatment

Over many years of working with corvids we have learned that in most cases a trust based relationship can be created, to allow even the physical contact needed to perform physiotherapeutic exercises. There is no risk of permanently imprinting or taming a bird, as this relationship is built out of a necessity, understanding and desire of the patient to recover and to get back to normal. This bond will be only temporary and is usually being cut by the patient at an appropriate time. The provision of suitable, specifically tailored aviary space is the most commonly used way to encourage a bird to perform active physiotherapy, meaning to encourage the bird to fly and to strengthen his or her muscles.

Raven Zarathustra in her release aviary.
Raven Zarathustra

Zarathustra, a wild adult female raven, is a good example for this treatment approach based on trust, common sense and the targeted use of compliance to achieve the desired goal. She underwent her normal daily assessment and simple physiotherapeutic exercise performed usually twice a day, without the need for constraining the bird and causing unnecessary stress. Zarathustra did cooperate very well and was always in control of the situation. If an exercise did cause her any discomfort, or she was not content enough to proceed, she would either move away or she would make a non-verbal statement to make her intentions clear by using her powerful beak to gently nudge the offending hand away.

Zarathustra made a full recovery and has been successfully released after four weeks of treatment and rehabilitation.

Wildlife Rescue – A Privilege To Interact With Sentient Beings

Rook Teal'c in our outdoor release aviary.

The encounter I am writing about repeats itself often, but every time it is a completely new and unique event. We are getting a new rescue bird patient in and are treating the animal until he or she is ready for release back into the wild. Again and again we are astonished about how quickly we are able to establish a close relationship with the bird in our care. It is always the same ingredients it needs to gain each others trust: Respect, patience, understanding and love. This brief story is dedicated to all of our rescue birds, but in particular to Teal’c, a very close rook friend, who came into our care after we found him soaked, cold and orphaned sitting in a puddle on a busy main road on the Isle of Wight.

Teal'c is an orphaned rook fledgling, who recovered well after being found orphaned with signs of severe dehydration and starvation.
Rook Teal’c

Teal’c was very poorly when we took him in, and we actually didn’t believe that we would be able to save him. But Teal’c survived, grew up very quickly and made friends with all family members, but in particular with Kerstin and myself. His curiosity and urge to explore new unknown things was astonishing. Nothing would escape his notice. Everything had to be thoroughly checked and explored, which would eventually include ‘scientific’ tests like soaking and testing the impact of gravitational forces on objects of interest.

Communication Between Species

Teal’c was also very communicative, having used his language, but also beak, wings and feet to make sure his message has been understood correctly. It did always amaze us, when Teal’c was looking into our eyes and beyond, deep into our souls, as this was exactly how it felt like. He was ever so gentle, the way he communicated, showing the whole range of emotions a human could possibly show.

When he was young, it seemed that he had occasional nightmares, not being happy at all to be left alone. He had to be brought to bed, or his perch in the aviary. Gentle talking and stroking would calm him down. When he was sitting on our shoulder, then he would press his body, neck and head onto our body, until he was about to fall asleep. On the other hand, if he would not get the attention he wanted, then he would voice his disappointment and even get the odd tantrum, which also could include some gentle, well chosen, but surely noticeable physical enforcement of his desires.

Rook Teal'c is growing up quickly into an inquisitive juvenile bird.
Rook Teal’c

There are hundreds of situations and unique encounters we have had with Teal’c, but also with a variety of other bird species, all providing unequivocal proof of the highly developed intelligence and emotional life of birds in general and corvids in particular.

Time To Say Good Bye

Teal’c grew into a beautiful young Rook, far to quickly the time was passing by. He once managed to escape rather by accident then by will, but came back, as it was not the right time to depart. Late in September we eventually released the juvenile rook friends Sam, O’Neill and Teal’c. They went off together joining a local mixed corvid bachelor group. Before the three birds where about to depart, we looked again into each others eyes, and we all realised, our hearts heavy and filled with sadness, it was now the right time to let go. We knew, that we will never forget each other and that our unique bond will persist, despite us being physically separated and living our own lives.

Rook Teal'c after being released sitting in a tree and paying his previous home a visit.
Rook Teal’c

All three birds are occasionally visiting our garden, and their past temporarily home, whilst passing through on their way from the roosting trees to the fields. All three birds will start calling and interacting with us and old bird friends. But they will keep their distance, as it should be. Now they are free, back into the wild, where they belong to.

How To Treat A Sentient Being With Respect

This adult rook is one of our local birds, who is visiting us and our residents on a regular basis.

Animals are intelligent, sentient individuals. We should refer to them as “he/she” or “them/they”, or by species. The words “it” or “thing” should not be used to refer to an animal, and “who” is used rather than “that”. If you do not know the gender, choose one: “he” or “she”. Even if your gender choice is wrong, it is more respectful than “it.” This is an important way of demonstrating the respect we ask others to afford to all animals.

Clive is an orphaned jay fledgling, who recovered well after being rescued, treated for an internal infection and successfully hand reared.
Jay Clive

Wild animals should not be kept in captivity for the purpose of subjecting them to the stress of a public display for educational or other purposes, even when the display is happening in a classroom. Public releases are in our opinion not acceptable either, because they do not any good to the animal concerned and only serve the ego of the person releasing the animal.

Should A Sentient Animal Being Used For Educational Purposes?

There are a multitude of more efficient educational media available in our days, which can be specifically tailored to suit the audience targeted. The abuse of animals in this manner sends a message to the public that animals can or should be tamed, or kept as “pets” or that they are objects for human diversion, entertainment, recreation or educational tools.

This picture of jackdaw Puck is taken after her successful release back into the wild.
Jackdaw Puck

It is often believed that species should be considered and preserved because they have some sort of value in themselves, a value unrelated to what’s in the best interests of the individuals who are members of the species. We don’t share this view. Sentient individuals have morally relevant interests in being alive and in not being harmed.

The interests in being alive and in not being harmed do not vary according to the fact whether a species is rare or common. It is very important to thoroughly establish whether an animal, who might not be releasable straight away, or at all is coping well with being kept in captivity. This is a difficult complex assessment depending on many factors requiring experience and intuition, a process which eventually is also very dependent on the individual animal and her or his adaptability.