Our routine aviary cleaning procedures also involve the cleaning of drinking and bathing facilities of our crows. This is usually seen with great anticipation by all our corvids. Birds in general, but in particular corvids, are very clean birds, and can’t wait to make use of a refreshing bath. We frequently add natural apple cider vinegar to bath and drinking water, which keeps the water longer fresh and has positive health properties for the birds.
The video shows carrion crow Emma taking advantage of a bath in natural apple cider vinegar, before we have been actually able to add drinking water to dilute the vinegar further. This behaviour can be seen as the equivalent to or a variation of anting, frequently observed in the wild.
Anting can take on different forms. Some birds will pick up ants in their beaks and rub them over their feathers, while others will open their wings, lie down and allow ants to penetrate their plumage. Birds seem to prefer using ants that produce formic acid. Formic acid is being used by ants as a defense mechanism.
One theory on anting is that the formic acid could act as a fungicide, bactericide and insect repellent, while others think that it is the vitamin D content in the acid that birds are interested in. However, birds sometimes use alternative anting tools, such as millipedes and fruit, and in our case apple cider vinegar. Some scientists believe that anting is used to preen feathers and helps to prevent the drying out of the plumage. Another suggestion is that anting has an intoxicating effect on birds, as some birds have been seen to shake themselves and seemingly lose control over their ability to walk.
Pan Tau, a juvenile carrion crow, came to us for rehabilitation via a veterinary surgery, where the kind finder, who rescued and cared for the bird for more than a week, has brought Pan Tau to seek professional help. The veterinary surgeon actually already suggested to put Pan Tau to sleep, but the finder insisted to give him another chance. This is where we got involved and agreed to take over the care of Pan Tau.
Pan Tau has been found unconsciously on the road after being hit by a car. He suffered a severe spinal injury, which resulted in a paralysis of wings and legs. Luckily, Pan Tau didn’t suffer fractures or other internal injuries. However, the spinal injury or spinal contusion resulted in his inability to stand, sit, walk or fly. We treated him accordingly and never stopped being amazed and encouraged by his trust and determination.
Pan Tau’s Determination Was The Key To Success
Although there was no breakthrough after a fortnight, Pan Tau did show some subtle improvements though, which persuaded us to continue with treatment including an intensified form of physiotherapy. About four weeks after the accident his balance problems started to improve and he was able to sit by himself on his hock joints. The spasms in his feet also started to resolve. Another four weeks later he was able to stand and started to walk and even perched the first time, still having coordination and balance problems.
After about three months of intensive care and rehabilitation Pan Tau could be moved into an outdoor aviary, where he enjoyed the new freedom, independence and interaction. Pan Tau will not be releasable, as he has got still some neurological, mainly balance issues and his flying skills are not good enough. He is meanwhile a fully integrated, well accepted and indepedent member of our residential crow family.
The recovery of Pan Tau, despite all odds and scientific predictions, is an amazing story in itself. We remain fascinated by his personality, his determination and his ever surprising ways to show us how much he is enjoying life, which is his way to say thank you for being giving this chance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.