The Cunning Corvidae

Common Raven by Jack Ballard

The exodus of migratory species substantially reduces the number of birds available for observation during the winter months here in the northern Rocky Mountains. However, while some species are absent during the snowy season, others are actually more visible. Such is my experience with members of the corvid clan such as Common Ravens, Gray Jays and Black-billed Magpies.

Among birds, the corvids are the whiz-kids. Last fall, I tacked a piece of suet from an Elk I was butchering to an aspen tree, hoping to attract some fat-loving birds such as Northern Flickers or Downy Woodpeckers. Within an hour the morsel attracted the attention of a Black-billed Magpie with exceptionally long tail feathers. Five months later a single Magpie appearing to be the same individual occasionally visits the tree. At times it peers in my window, seemingly begging for another morsel.

Black-billed Magpie by Jack Ballard

Far from unusual, this Magpie’s memory of a fleeting, but highly desirable food source is in keeping with its kind. Members of the corvidae family have demonstrated memory of cached food items a full nine months after hiding them. In tests of spatial intelligence, the ability of corvids exceeds most mammals, including dogs and cats. In fact, the problem-solving abilities of corvids are thought by many biologists to be on par with apes.

Just for fun, this morning I put a small scrap of stew meat in a crotch in the aspen tree. How long do you think it will take Mensa Magpie to find it?

Jack Ballard

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2 Responses to “The Cunning Corvidae”

  1. Carol Sperling says:

    Busy season for birds maybe half a day, 12 hours

  2. Jack says:

    It took the afternoon off. It took exactly 23 hours.