Local author gets inside the world of the wily crow

  • By Sharon Wootton / Special to The Herald
  • Friday, April 14, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

I’ve never seen John Marzluff in a caveman mask, but I understand he’s pretty attractive in an evil sort of way – at least to crows.

Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, started a study on face recognition after crows that he had banded harassed him while he walked across campus.

In the study, bird-banders wore a caveman mask during a four-day period when they were capturing and banding the crows.

“We were persecuted all across campus,” Marzluff said. “If we didn’t wear it, we walked freely. I always thought they recognized faces.”

Marzluff had a reporter wear the mask and the harassment continued.

“The crows recognized the mask as belonging to an evil person,” he said. “They scold you and mob you. That’s a way culture catches on. The crows are indicating evil by their behavior. Naive crows see it and learn about this evil force in their environment and develop a culture or a tradition on campus to hate cavemen.

“We want to know if we can track this tradition, gradually go farther out (from campus) and see if it’s recognized. When their kids come out of the nest, will they start scolding us?”

Crows are incredibly smart. Recently Marzluff was outside Yellowstone National Park when he saw a crow with a broken wing. He tried to catch it.

“There was one tree in the middle of that yard, and it made a beeline for that tree and got on other side of it and immediately used that tree as a shield,” Marzluff said. “I would come around one way and it would go the other. It was real insight on the crow’s part. It had figured out a way to stay away from a ground predator right away.”

It seems unlikely that you’d see similar behavior from a chicken.

Marzluff, who lives in the Maltby area, and artist-writer Tony Angell of Lopez Island recently published the delightful “In the Company of Crows and Ravens.” A presentation on the book is coming up at 1 p.m. May 13 in the Edmonds Plaza Room during the Edmonds Bird Fest.

Angell had illustrated a Marzluff book on pinion jays, and they had talked for years about crows. The discussion eventually focused on how people and crows have influenced one another over time, and they followed that thread in the book for a fresh look at human-crow dynamics. Marzluff also will discuss the two-way street of influences in an Outdoors column in May.

The book features more than 100 of Angell’s crow-related drawings, and dozens of fascinating stories about crows and ravens, their intelligence, their relationships to each other and humans, their place in art and history, and their ability to communicate.

Marzluff also is conducting a study of about 500 crows with colored bands in the Seattle-to-Monroe corridor. Anyone who sees these birds is encouraged to report the sighting to Marzluff by e-mailing corvid@u.washington.edu.

Information about date and location of the sighting, the color combination of bands on each of the crow’s legs, and the crow’s behavior, especially if it looks like innovative behavior, will be useful.

“We can understand more about their movements and population dynamics. We’re trying to understand why their numbers are increasing so much here,” Marzluff said. “One thing we’re seeing is that reproduction is very high in the suburbs and the birds tend to move to the city.”

Wherever they go, Marzluff won’t be far behind.

On the bookshelf: Most inexperienced campers haven’t had a camping guru to lead them around the rookie traps just waiting to snare them in a miserable outdoor experience. But experienced campers Buck Tilton and Kristin Hostetter can help. They share their experiences in “Tent and Car Camper’s Handbook” ($17, Mountaineers).

Take their advice to heart, from the Tent Commandments to breaking in your boots, campsite selection and post-trip chores.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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