Urban settings offer enterprising critters new opportunities — if they can cope with the challenges
Anne Clark and Kevin McGowan are discussing, perfectly seriously, how a crow might be able to recognize a car. Not tell a car from, say, a cat, but pick out the red Subaru from other cars in the parking lot.
Clark, an animal behaviorist at Binghamton University in New York, is sitting in her own red Subaru with McGowan, of Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca. Neither bothers to mention — it’s apparently so routine — that when Clark pulled into the lot, two crows flapped over to nearby trees. Country crows often back away from human doings, but these birds lingered as if people-watching.
Clark and McGowan are running a long-term study of what urban life is like for a group of Ithaca’s crows, tagging and following them as they grow up, take over or lose territories, and succeed or not in raising the next generation of research subjects. Even in a university town, the birds probably aren’t lured to the Subaru by the thrill of scientific discovery, but rather by the scientists’ occasional ploy of flinging peanuts and dog food out the window to engineer some bird activity.
“They know us,” McGowan says. There isn’t another Subaru in the lot to test the birds’ discriminatory abilities, but McGowan has inadvertently conducted his own experiment. He sold his car and bought a new one. McGowan was temporarily invisible automotively, but the birds caught on eventually. And the old car’s new owner reported that a crow appeared to be following him to work. It was OK; the driver just provisioned the car with peanuts for an occasional fling.