Thursday, October 22, 2009

Birds in fable and fact

The Crow and the Pitcher
In a spell of dry weather, a very thirsty crow found a pitcher with a little water in it. But he could not reach the water with his beak, no matter how hard he tried. The pitcher was too hard to break and too heavy to tip over. Just as he was about to give up in frustration, he had an idea. He collected as many stones as he could and dropped them into the pitcher one by one. With each stone, the water rose a little higher until it reached the brim and quench his thirst. Moral of the story: Necessity is the mother of invention.
This fable by ancient Greek storyteller Aesop may be familiar to you from childhood. It has recently been in the news because biologists at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. put it to the test. They conducted an experiment and found that rooks (relatives of the crow) will indeed add stones to a tube of water to get at a worm floating on top! Already proven to use tools, the rooks appeared to estimate how many stones they would need and quickly learned that larger stones work better.
Who Killed Cock Robin?
All the birds of the air
Fell a-sighing and a-sobbing
When they heard the bell toll
For poor Cock Robin.
This is the last stanza in a centuries-old nursery rhyme that you may also remember. Well, a researcher at the University of Colorado has observed the behavior of 4 magpies alongside the corpse of a 5th and describes, "One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it...and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off....We can't know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there's no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend." The headline: Magpies 'Feel Grief and Hold Funerals.'

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