TALES FROM THE COMPOST HEAP: CROWS
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?
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.
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!)