Round Two to R. L.
Chimpanzees or dolphins are often cited as the most intelligent animals, next to man. But such a blithe statement dramatically simplifies an enormously complicated set of concepts which are collectively termed “intelligence.” For example, it takes more than a thousand trials to teach a chimpanzee to count past the number two. However, untrained crows in the wild have been observed to count up to twenty. Depending on the particular aspect of intelligence you choose to quantify, any number of animals can be determined to be as intelligent, if not more so, than humans.
That crows are intelligent was something that anyone growing up on a farm in 19th century America already knew. While a teenager, my grandfather, R. L. Cox, had many battles with crows, and the crows won most of them. Below are accounts of two of the encounters, one the crows won and one my grandfather won.
Crows are omnivores and particularly enjoy eating just ripened corn. Crows quickly learn to distinguish between real persons and scarecrows. In addition, the crows with whom my grandfather did battle learned not only to recognize when my grandfather was carrying a shotgun, but also knew the range of the shotgun. If R. L. went into the corn field without the shotgun, they would ignore him until just before he reached them and would then fly away. If he came out of the house with the shotgun, they would immediately fly to a tree just out of range and sit there until he left.
Because R. L. knew that he was smarter than the crows, he set his mind to work on a scheme to get them. The first plan he tried involved using a tool shed beside the corn field along with his three brothers.. R. L. got the shotgun, collected his three brothers, and they all trooped out of the house. The crows saw the shotgun and immediately fled to a safe distance. All four brothers went into the tool shed. After a brief wait, R. L. told his three brothers to return to the house. R. L. was sure this would fool the crows and that they would soon return to feast upon the corn. As soon as they did, R. L. planned to burst forth from the tool shed with his shot gun blazing and to repeat the trick as many times as it took to wipe out the crows.
Only those crows didn’t budge from their roost, just out of range. R. L. just sat there waiting and sweating in that hot tool shed. Those crows could count. They had seen four people go into the tool shed and had only seen three come out. They also knew that none of the three that departed was carrying the shotgun. R. L. finally decided that while his plan was sound, this particular implementation of it was faulty. Realizing that crows could count, R. L. decided that he would overwhelm their limited intellect through sheer force of numbers. R. L. then began to recruit all the boys on the neighboring farms to participate in the ruse. These boys were willing to help because they all enjoyed a good adventure, and crows were a common problem for which any solution was welcome.
R. L. repeated the experiment and failed. He tried again with more boys and failed. R. L. never did establish the upper limit beyond which a crow cannot count. But, he did confirm that this critical number was in excess of the number of teenage boys that could fit in a tool shed. Round One to the crows.
However, R. L. was persistent. One day while trying to contrive a new solution to the crow problem, he noticed that the crows paid absolutely no attention when his mother walked out of the house and into the field. Whenever his father or his brothers walked out, the crows were immediately alert and constantly checked on their position and whether they were carrying the shotgun. A plan formed in R. L.’s mind. He asked his mother if he could borrow one of her long flowing work dresses and one of her sun bonnets. He then quickly explained that this was part of the plan to get the crows lest she draw the wrong conclusion.
R. L. donned the big flowing dress and put on the bonnet. With his right arm inside the dress, he held the shotgun. He walked out of the house with the dress on, the shotgun concealed beneath its folds. The crows paid him no mind. He walked into the corn field. The crows didn’t stir. He walked as close as he dared. Then he firmly set his feet, quickly raised the shotgun to his right shoulder, and let loose a blast at the thickest concentration of crows. Round Two to R. L.
Eventually the crows figured out this trick and the battle was rejoined. But before they did, R. L. did some serious damage to that particular murder of crows. To this day, when crows flock together at dusk and chatter while bedding down for the night, you can hear them whisper the name “R. L.” to scare their chicks.