Thursday, February 18, 2010

The skull of the bird

Like many of our metaphors and phrases about animals, “bird brain” is just plain stupid, formed in ignorance and arrogance. In fact, birds are relatively large-brained for their body mass -- more so than reptiles, for instance. Some have impressive spatial memory for food caches. Some can figure out lab puzzles that baffle even mammals. Some use tools. Some can learn new skills from observation. And the passerines, the perching, singing birds, certainly sing better than I do.

That said, of course, the bird brain is physically small. This is a life-sized cast of a hummingbird skull. It’s an inch long. I saw my first hummingbird in the Midwest, and at first I thought I was looking at a large bug. I wasn’t paying attention to birds then, but I was still intrigued.

The corvids -- crows, ravens, jays, nutcrackers -- are usually considered the smartest of the birds. This gunmetal crow skull is life-sized at just over 3 inches long. (The bleached-out sinuous curve it's posing on is an antler I found in New Jersey.)I, personally, love crows and ravens. NYC has finally recovered from the first wave of West Nile Fever, which hit crows hard; I now almost always see a couple or more (a lone crow is nearly oxymoronic) when I’m out. (Like the paranoid Cold Warriors of yore, I always have my eye on the sky.) The birds are co-evolving with us, taking to the world's cities and our garbage. (Lyanda Haupt's book Crow Planet discuses this paradox.)

Ravens haven’t come into the city, but who knows, with coyotes advancing down from Westchester into the Inner Borough -- as I like to call overly self-important Manhattan -- the big burly ravens may come down, too. I heard my first raven before I ever saw one: up at Bear Mountain. In the distance, that deep, distinctive croak, sometimes rendered as "cr-r-ruck or prruk" (Peterson) or "brronk" (Sibley). Then I saw them, at eye-level, on Mt. Tam, north of San Francisco. In northern Scotland, we’d just discovered a washed out raven’s nest up on a steep hillside, when around the ridgeside came a loud, excited family of five, owning the air -- the nest had lasted through fledging. Most recently I saw and heard them upstate in the Shawangunks. I always find them thrilling.

Both pieces of jewelry above were crafted by Blue Bayer, who obviously does some lovely work with metal.


Melissa said...

I'm with you on the corvids -- LOVE them. Very smart, too. I'm intrigued with many of the easily dismissed "weedy, pesty" animal species that, like us, adapt to live just about anywhere and eat just about anything. Raccoons, coyotes, pigeons, crows, etc.

Inner borough, eh? Hmmm. I'll have to think about that

--Out walking the dog

Steven M. said...

I'm reading Crow Planet now myself. Lovely book.

Needless to say, I'm looking hard for the crows around Grand Army Plaza, but haven't seen any yet. Maybe I'm just looking too hard. Where you usually see them?

Matthew said...

You're more likely to hear them first. If the Prospect Park Lake is still icy, there's a good chance of seeing them on the ice.

Steven M. said...

That's what I thought too -- how could I miss their cawing? But I can't recall ever hearing crows in Brooklyn. (I probably just tuned them out.)

Maybe I'll get into the park this weekend, thanks.