Friday, February 21, 2014



Out of sight, but not out of mind.

Hocus and Pocus                
 The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is known to be mischievous, cunning, playful, and even a little crafty. One ability that crows appear to be really good at is hiding food, or caching. Crows hide their food in caches so that they can come back later to eat their hidden treats. If you were walking in a grassy field or park, you may never know that food storages are all around you, which were left by these resourceful birds.  Many of these caches are located in my backyard. I know this because I have been watching two crows hide their food on my property for seven months. I am partly responsible for this unique avian activity because I fed them in order to observe them. In turn, I would like to use the observation as basis for future research.

 I am a student at the University of Washington in Bothell, and I have been feeding two American crows in my backyard in order to earn their trust so that I can study their cognitive behaviors. One of the most interesting behaviors that I have witnessed is watching my two American crows cache their food in my backyard. I named these two crows Hocus and Pocus because of their ability to make their food vanish right in front of my eyes. Their mastery of the now you see it, now you don't trick would make any up-and-coming magician jealous with envy.

Hocus and Pocus picking peanuts
 I feed them bread or hard-shelled unsalted peanuts around the same time every other day. The crows and I go through the same ritual each time I feed them. I walk outside into my backyard, call their names, they call back as they fly down to the roof of my house. I drop the peanuts or bread and walk away, they immediately swoop down from my roof and eat the food. I have learned their shell-cracking eating habits by watching them hold the peanuts with their feet while they bob their heads back and forth and peck at the hard shells to get to the meaty nuts inside. This eating behavior is the same every time. One would find this behavior monotonous after watching for seven moths straight, but there is one other thing that they do each time they eat that is remarkable every time I witness it.
Caching spot where food was hidden
Hocus and Pocus love to hide their food in my backyard, and they are darn good at it. I've witnessed this behavior many times, and each time I am amazed at the craftiness of their hiding skills. Watching them find the perfect spot to dig in the grass to make a hole, place their peanuts or bread into the hole, and then find grass, leaves, or twigs to cover their prize, never gets old no matter how many times I've seen them do it. After they cache their food and fly away I have walked right up to the hiding spot and I always have trouble finding it, even after I just watched them hide it. They are that good at hiding their food!

After several days, I have walked back to the hiding spots and the food is always gone. The two crows have come back at some point and redeemed their tasty prizes!  There is no trace of crumbs, peanut shells, or any indicator that there was once food in the hiding spot. How they remember where their food is hidden is still a mystery to me, but it never ceases to amaze me that they can always find it.

The two crows, Hocus and Pocus, are the wizards of my backyard and they have rightly earned their names. Even after seven months, their ability to play hide-and-seek with food is something that still amazes me. In the next seven months, I expect to still be in awe of their search and rescue proficiency regarding their food. I can only imagine what new discoveries I will make from my two corvid friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment