Reverend Hellfire, Friend of all the little creatures

Tales from the Compost Heap; “On the cleverness of Crows”

I was pottering about my garden the other day when I was lucky enough to witness a little scene that demonstrated to me once again the cleverness of Crows.

I’ve always loved to do a bit of gardening, even as a child. Yes, there’s nothing like working with plants and getting some dirt under your finger-nails to get you back to your Neolithic roots. Its a form of meditation really. And I long ago learned that an essential component of any garden is the Compost Heap.

Ah the wondrous Compost Heap! The totally organic Recycling Plant. Amusingly (to me at least) my local city council has a scam where as well as the usual two bins provided (general waste & recyclables) householders can also pay to have a third “green” bin for so-called “green waste“.

“Green waste!!” I shriek in outrage, “There’s no such thing!”

Anything mown, trimmed, clipped, cut or weeded should be thrown into the compost heap. As for branches, just make a woodstack somewhere. Even if you never have a barbecue or bonfire, the wood pile will eventually decompose and in the meantime will provide a home for insects and lizards and frogs.

And these little creatures are all necessary for a happy garden.


Of course my idea of a Compost Heap is considerably different from your average suburban gardener’s anal-retentive idea of what such a thing should be. They think you have to buy an ugly black plastic “compost bin”, or build some structure that looks business like; its all obsessively neat and contained and aesthetically sterile. All that nasty decomposition is tucked safely out of sight.

My Compost Heaps are a lot more, let us say, organic in design. Basically, I select a nice, sunny spot, call it the compost heap, and start dumping organic waste there. If I want to get fancy I’ll dig a little bit of a hole first, or line the edges with rocks. Then all I have to do is turn it over regularly with a spade and presto, you have excellent mulch and organic fertiliser. It also attracts many earthworms who help the process.

Another benefit of my style of composting is that plant seeds often sprout un-looked for in this fertile environment. Such plants are known as “volunteers” and as such can be exceptionally sturdy.

Tomatoes are common, but many’s the fine Pumpkin vine got its start in my compost heap. The tomato seedlings can be transplanted but the pumpkin sprouts don’t like to be moved, so I just thin them out, leaving the strongest. They usually appear in Spring and over the months I let the vines grow where they will, chaotically chasing the sun across the Wabe, climbing the sundial & statuary, till Autumn comes and I harvest a hearty crop of pumpkins.

Yes, its all very untidy isn’t it?


Turkey cafeteria?

My current Compost Heap however, doesn’t do a lot of actual composting as such, though it does in its fashion, contribute to the the greater notion of Recycling.

Lawn clippings and general garden waste can usually be left there to safely moulder away, but anything from the kitchen barely touches the ground before it’s gone. The reason for this is the abundance of hungry back-yard wildlife in my little suburban oasis.

The bush-turkeys usually get in first, squabbling over the scraps, followed by the cautious crows. When it quietens down, the big blue-tongue lizard, who lives in the hollow log marking the edge of the Heap, crawls out and fossicks amongst the scraps. Banana skins he likes to munch on special. Other birds forage there also; once even a stately grey-faced heron silently investigated the culinary possibilities.

Anything that isn’t eaten during the day is devoured at night by the possums, both brush-tail & ringtail. Finally, the ants and the myriad little insects that live in the leaf litter and soil, will carry off the smallest particles. Nothing is wasted.

Now some people might think that all this “feral free-loading” was a problem, probably the sort of people who think a compost heap is a black plastic bin you buy from Bunnings. Not me. I feel privileged to share my life and garden with my fellow creatures.

And I keep a big bowl of water next to the compost heap in case anyone gets thirsty.


Now, like Saint Francis, I am the friend of all animals and generally wild creatures are not frightened off by my presence. But crows are the most cautious of creatures, and regard all humans with a deep and well-deserved suspicion. Thus even I they distrust somewhat and they generally won’t approach the Heap till I’ve moved off a few feet. If I hang around for too long they sit in a branch above my head and complain loudly till I shift myself.

Anyways, the other day I had thrown a packet of stale crackers out onto the Heap. Dry, crunchy,horrible things, barely edible even when fresh, they’re the sort of thing my Personal Assistant eats, for reasons best known to herself. But I didn’t have much hope that anything else would be able to digest the ghastly things, aside from slime moulds and primitive fungi.

Indeed, as I expected, the bush turkeys entirely ignored the broken crackers strewn across the ground. But then it was the crows turn.

Corvids (crows and ravens) are in fact the most intelligent of birds, with a large and highly developed brain.

One fine, fat, glossy fellow hopped over to the compost heap and examined the contents with a discerning eye. He critically pecked at one of the crackers a few times, then stopped, as if in disgust. Head cocked to one side he considered the rock-hard wafer thoughtfully. Then, picking up the cracker in his beak, he waddled over to the water bowl and dropped it into the water. He then watched it carefully for a minute or so, occasionally dunking the cracker further into the water with his beak. Eventually he decided it had absorbed enough water and was soft enough to be edible without crumbling completely. He took the cracker out with his beak, and using his powerful claws broke it into bite size chunks. He then repeated the process with a another cracker.

A second, younger crow flew down and watched his activities with interest. The first crow appeared to demonstrate the principle and even shared a bit of cracker with his friend. The young crow quickly got the idea and started soon started dunking crackers itself.

All in all it was a charming scene, and it demonstrated both the crows capacity for problem solving, and their ability to communicate and teach learnt techniques to others in their social group.


dunking crackers

It also put me in mind of a story told by Pliny the Elder to demonstrate the cleverness of crows, in his voluminous work the “Natural History” (possibly the world’s first encyclopedia).

As Pliny tells it, there was once a large clay urn standing in a courtyard, half-filled with water. A thirsty crow stood on the lip of the urn pondering the problem. The water was too low for the crow to reach from where it perched on the rim and if it flew inside the narrow-necked urn it could easily become trapped inside.

After some consideration the crow flew away and quickly returned, carrying a stone in its beak. It dropped the stone into the water, then flew off to find another.

The crow repeated this process many times. Of course, everytime it dropped a stone into the jar, the stone would displace an equivalent amount of water and thus the water level would rise incrementally. Eventually the water level reached the top of the urn and the crow was able to quench its thirst at last.

Is this a true story? I’ve got a vague idea Aesop told a similar tale that someone else later tacked a moral onto (they were always tacking morals onto Aesop’s stories) but I’m not sure about that.

However, having spent a fair amount of time over the years studying Corvids, both observing crows directly and reading widely the folklore and scientific literature on the species, I’d have to say that if I witnessed such a scene I might be impressed, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

They’re damn smart birds.



The Reverend Hellfire is a practising Performance Poet and an ordained Minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanists AND the Church of the Universe.

If nothing else he deserves the benefit of the doubt. (Hey! He’s polite about your wacko religious beliefs!)


“I liked the Rev’s Sermon this week, how about you?”
“Who cares, I wanna nother cracker!”



~ by reverendhellfire on August 26, 2012.


  1. An entertaining and informative essay!

  2. Hi! I’ve nominated your blog for The Addictive Blog Award http://historyoftheancientworld.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/the-addictive-blog-award/ Love, Maarit-Johanna

    • Thank you kindly for the nomination and i really appreciate the thought.
      And in return may I say that YOUR site is one of my favourites; great photos and paintings, thoughtful well informed writing, always worth taking a look at.
      However, I don’t really like accepting these “Blogger” awards. Even though they might make my site look really important and i could boast on my resume that I”ve won many awards, they’re really not much more than chain letters. Usually you have to nominate seven other winners (why seven? must be a lucky number)And if no-one breaks the chain very soon EVERYONE will have an award and whats the value in that? It makes us like a class of retarded children, with the teachers aide exclaiming, “Now everyones a winner” type of sad shit.
      For another thing I don’t like the term “blogger” I’m a poet, writer, reverend, philosopher, maverick, lunatic, loudmouth, opinionated ass- many things but not a “blogger”.
      I don’t even know what blogging is supposed to be, except an excuse for self-indulgent drivel a lot of the time. Oh and people clicking the “LIKE” button on everybodies post without even bothering to read anything, in a sleazy attempt to drive traffic to their own site.
      Hmm, that sounds a bit negative. Sorry, I have the flu and its making me short tempered. I’ll stop writing now.
      But thanks for the nomination

  3. Interestingly, I read recently of a researcher who repeated the experiment with crows and stones. There were three “tubes” next to each other. In one experiment, putting stones into the tube raised the water level in that tube. Crows were able to solve this problem. In another, the stones had to be placed into the tube next to the one with water in order to raise the level. The crows couldn’t solve this problem. The same experiment was tried with children between 3-4 who were able to solve both problems. It seem that for crow-problem-solving there needs to be a direct causality for them to solve it.

    Here in the parks in Germany in Autumn you often see crows dropping acorns from a high height onto the bitumen and concrete of the pathways. They repeat this time and time again until the nut cracks.

    • Glad to hear that Old Pliny’s work has been validated. As to the second part of the experiment relating to causality(playing corvid advocate here) I think the most you could conclude is that some crows weren’t able to solve the problem and some 3/4 year old humans were. And you have to take cultural weighting into account, like the way some cultural/racial groups do badly in “Intelligence Tests” not because of lack of Intelligence but due to other cultural factors. I mean, being experimented on by men in white lab coats is a normal part of the 4 year old human experiance, but whats a crow to make of the game?

      More seriously (perhaps) is another experiment with crows I read of, involving tool usage, where to get a piece of meat, a crow had to use 3 seperate “tools” each a different length, in the correct order.
      As to cracking nuts, crows in Tokyo apparently have learnt to drop nuts on the roadway near stoplights. The cars crack the nuts, then they wait till the light turns red, and then fly down to collect their reward.
      Whatever the exact nature of their intelligence, of their sentience I have no doubt.
      Now if they’d only stop shitting on my car. Ingrates!

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