Solving some riddle’s nothing to crow about
Give a thirsty crow a pitcher with only a little water in it and some stones. The ancient Greek fable-teller, Aesop, told how the crafty bird figured out that dropping the stones in the jug would allow it to reach the water.
Many think of this as just a fable, whose moral suggests something about how persistence pays. But actually, the story-teller was being a sort of ancient twitcher, accurately reporting avian behaviour. Crows and apparently other corvids such as rooks and jays all do this trick, demonstrating a sound grasp of Archimedes’s principle and quite possibly making them more intelligent than most seven-year-old human children, a study found this week.
To be fair to the children, they got there eventually. Although the birds did figure out how to get the water level up more quickly, the five-to-seven-year- olds in the study were merely unburdened with preconceived notions of physics.
The eight-year-olds aced the problem, but their younger siblings, the researchers explained, deserve a little slack because the natural state of being a child is that they are constantly testing and trying things out to understand the world around them.
Lucy Cheke, who led the study, said the job of being a child was not to be limited by ideas of what is or is not possible. And while this lets these little magical thinkers off the hook somewhat, I feel for the children.
Puzzles and riddles like those the children tried to solve have always made me nervous, because failure to crack them always seems to suggest some sort of mental deficiency.
So in an innovation for this column, let’s try one: I am as large as the castle, yet lighter than air. One hundred men and their horses cannot move me. What am I?
Or this classic, which requires you not to get distracted by any nonsense: While on my way to St Ives, I saw a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks. Each sack had seven cats. Each cat had seven kittens. Kittens, cats, sacks, wives, How many were going to St Ives?
If you can figure them out, it is possible to feel a certain smug pleasure in your cleverness. Or you could cheat and read the answer at the bottom – but you will always know your grey matter wasn’t up to the task that perhaps even a bird brain could figure out.
So if only corvids among bird species understand the mechanics of fluid displacement, it chimes with my sense that black birds have a rather more calculating stare than, say, pigeons or gulls. No wonder Edgar Allan Poe could use them to such great effect when the sinister avian of his poem kept rasping the word “nevermore” at him.
But Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous study of evil avian behaviour in his 1963 film The Birds paints a picture of how creepy gulls can be, too. Look a gull in the eye and you will be chilled by the ferocity of a cold, hard lizard-like stare.
But while gulls too are considered clever and resourceful in their determination to eat your chips, the ones in my neighbourhood come across more like roving gangs of thugs than their fellow black-clad criminal masterminds.
The good news is that in Arbroath, there are moves afoot to outwit the hordes of gulls that behave a little like those in the Hitchcock film.
Recently, one man, Ian Watson, noticed that although the marauders were happily ripping apart his binbags to scavenge scraps, the birds completely ignored his daughter’s leftover birthday cake. Being a Manchester United fan, her cake was decorated in lurid crimson, which gave him an idea.
He decided to test out his nascent theory that the gulls dislike red. On the beach he set out a number of differently coloured fields with food on them. The gulls stole food from the green ones and the blue ones, but again ignored the red – although it has to be the right shade – a vivid cherry colour, Ian and his friends found.
Next month, the community council is going to consider proposals that all wheelie bins be painted a bright nail-varnish red in an effort to deter the teeming gulls.
If it works, you have to wonder why no-one has discovered this before. But then if it does solve the problem, at least it shows we are smarter than the birds.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West