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» BIRDS ATTACK!: Navigation, Personality & Aggression in the Aviary Kingdom

by Brian Awehali

Dog and Crow Battle, Ocean Beach, San Francisco (c) Brian Awehali

Who’s attacking whom on Ocean Beach, SF? – photo (c) Brian Awehali

Birds, who once were dinosaurs, could take over the world (again) if they wanted to. And not just in the movies, a la Hitchcock’s 1963 terror, The Birds. (If you haven’t seen the movie, check out this well-edited one-and-a-half-minute version of it.) Not long ago, in Kagoshima, a city on the southern island of Kyushu, in Japan, a booming crow population went on the offensive: destroying power lines and fiber optic cable, being markedly more aggressive with people, and outwitting human “crow patrols” by building decoy nests. In recent years, crows have been filmed using tools in sequence and exhibiting complex reasoning as well.

You see, birds are smart: They make tools, have sentriesnavigate by magnetism, sense impending geophysical events and, of course, they can fly. The whole birds-were-once-dinosaurs thing is one of those boggling things that just seems so obvious once you think about it or, really, just look at birds for a bit.

“Rahonavis is a primitive bird from 80 million-year-old rocks of Madagascar. Despite being more bird-like than Archaeopteryx, raven-sized Rahonavis retains some distinctive theropod features, including the distinctive slashing claw used to murderous effect by Velociraptor in the film Jurassic Park. Velociraptor is thought to be about as close as a dinosaur gets to being a bird without actually being one.”

It’s interesting. I was talking to my mother about birds a while back, and when I mentioned their ability to navigate by magnetism and, I’d heard, listening to underground rivers, she said: “Yeah, with their lodestone.” I’d heard the word “lodestone” before, but never knew what it meant. When I asked, she said it was like a magnet in their heads that let them find their way. A bit of online research reveals that lodestones are, in fact, magnetized pieces of the mineral magnetite. Most pieces of magnetite aren’t magnetized, and geologists theorize that the ones that are have been made that way by lightning. My mom sometimes shares dubious wisdom that I’m fairly certain I should not believe. For example, that Santa Claus actually exists, or that the world began just a few thousand years ago, just like it says in the Bible, with Adam and Eve in the garden.

Anyway. Lodestones. Mom spoke of it as a kind of known thing, but I went looking online, and science, as so often seems to be the case, only recently caught up with known things.

The discovery in 2004 of tiny deposits of a mineral called magnetite (lodestone) in the beaks of pigeons and bobolink (a North American songbird) biased the debate [about how birds navigate] towards the hypothesis that birds can read Earth’s magnetic field.

* * *

So, do the math; birds can fly, solve problems, make and use tools, organize, and probably navigate by magnetism. Why do they put up with us? Against all reason, birds must like us. Despite modern industrial chicken “farming,” despite our erecting cell phone towers that disorient them, wind farms that sometimes clobber them, or mountains–continents!– of trash that poison them, they must just like us anyway, you know, the way you might love that guy who sometimes gets mad and beats the crap out of you. Like that.

crowsIt wouldn’t be because they’re meek or physically incapable of carnage, either. Check out just one type of one species, the golden eagle: flying down and killing a deer :: or strategically hunting goats by knocking them off of cliffs. That’s the only possible explanation for why they haven’t already devoured us, pecked us underground, or made pinnipeds of us. They must enjoy watching humans. Who knows? Maybe the second most popular leisure activity among birds is peoplewatching. I suppose a few — buzzards in particular — must also possess a gustatory appreciation for people and our reputedly pork-like flavor.

Their feelings toward us must be very complex. After all, in addition to lodestones, they possess specialized limbic systems in their brains, necessary for true emotional behavior. Outside of birds, this system only exists in the higher vertebrate species. So things like rage, fear, and curiosity are not merely anthropomorphic projections when it comes to birds. They really do have distinct personalities. They also have gender-bending, “promiscuity” and sometimes engage in illogical risky behaviors. I wonder what finally set the crows of Kagoshima over the edge?

Crow on California Pacific Coastline (c) Brian Awehali

POSTSCRIPT: Cosmos Online also reported on findings of the fossils of previously unknown species of giant feathered tyrannosaur–Yutyrannus huali–in the Lower Cretaceous Yixian Formation of Liaoning Province, in China.

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