Crows are too smart to be domesticated

Crows are too smart to be domesticated

Ben Crair writes:

At around 9 a.m. every weekday, a crow caws in the Jardin des Plantes, the oldest botanical garden in Paris. The sound is a warning to every other crow: Frédéric Jiguet, a tall ornithologist whose dark hair is graying around the ears, has shown up for work. As Jiguet walks to his office at the French National Museum of Natural History, which is on the garden’s grounds, dozens of the black vandals take to the trees and rain abuse on him, as though he were a condemned man. “I think I’m the best friend of French crows,” Jiguet told me. “But I am probably the man they hate most.”

Crows are famous for holding grudges. Their beef with Jiguet started in 2015, when the Paris government hired him to study their movements around the city. Farmers blame crows for crop damage, and hunters shoot hundreds of thousands of the birds each year; in Paris, some district managers wanted permission to cull them for tearing into trash bags and digging up lawns. But Jiguet questioned the wisdom of killing so many crows. “It costs a lot to destroy pests,” he remembers thinking. “Can it really be efficient to destroy all these lives?”

Outside his office, Jiguet began baiting net traps with kitchen scraps such as raw eggs and bits of chicken. He removed one bird at a time with his bare hands. Then he stuffed the bird into a cloth tube that he had cut from his daughter’s leggings, to immobilize the bird while he recorded its weight on a scale. Finally, he strapped a colorful ring, which was labelled with a three-digit number, to the bird’s leg.

Eventually, Jiguet erected a metal cage the size of a wood shed in the garden, to trap the birds. Crows could fly in, but they couldn’t escape until Jiguet let them out. Although some of the birds meekly accepted their fates, some pecked at him furiously when he ringed their legs.

Over the years, Jiguet has caught and released more than thirteen hundred crows. He also built a Web site where people could report sightings. These efforts revealed a big shakeup every spring, in which year-old crows flew the coop and looked for new habitats. Some Parisian crows were spotted as far away as the Dutch countryside, but most formed new flocks in the city’s green spaces, where there was garbage to eat. Jiguet convinced the city government that there was no point in trying to kill a park’s crows: after all, new ones would arrive within a year. “This project definitely changed the view of Parisian politicians on crows,” he said. Recently, he published a book about coexisting with crows.

The birds were not very appreciative, however. Many of them remembered when Jiguet had caged, manhandled, and banded them. Some had never flown into his trap, but still learned from their peers and joined in the cawing. Crows even recognized him when he showed up for work in a surgical mask, after months of working from home during the pandemic. Jiguet, a lifelong bird-watcher, was learning how it feels when birds watch back. [Continue reading…]

Comments are closed.