Gerry Farrell: Clever crows will ruffle your feathers

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I was walking to work one morning aged 16, whistling and kicking a stone in front of me when I heard a swish of wings over my shoulder.

A baby crow swooped low over the pavement, landed next to my stone, picked it up in its beak, cocked its head and waited.

I walked towards it, expecting it to fly away in fright. But as soon as I drew level, it dropped the stone. This was a game. I kicked the stone 20 feet ahead of me and my new pal took off after it, picked it up and waited again with a cheeky gleam in its jet-black eye.

The fourth time I kicked the stone, the crow lost interest and hopped up onto the wall above my head. It walked along with me. When I stopped, it stopped. I dug around in my pocket and found a silver sixpence. I held it up, moving it this way and that in my fingers so it caught the light. The crow ruffled its feathers, bent its head down to my hand, opened its beak and grabbed the coin. Off it flapped again then stopped and waited on the wall, looking down at me. As soon as I caught up, it opened its beak and dropped the coin into the palm of my hand.

Just then a man passed me on the other side of the street, walking a white poodle. My crow lost interest in me and flew across the road. It began to dive-bomb the poodle which started barking. The dog-walker got upset and waved his arms about but the crow kept swooping out of reach then diving down again to annoy the dog. I watched as the odd little threesome disappeared down the road, wondering to myself “Did that really happen – and who’s actually going to believe me when I tell them?”

Crows are supposed to have the same intellectual capacity as seven-year-old children but they also have a sinister side. Did you ever read the Scottish ballad, The Twa Corbies? If you haven’t, check it out. It’s a murder mystery that’ll put the hair up on the back of your neck.

I experienced the dark side of a crow only once. My girlfriend invited me to stay with her family in their farmhouse in County Down. She showed me up to my bedroom and said: “That’s the bed my grandfather died in, that’s where you’re sleeping.” I tossed and turned that night. There was a high wind and rattling noises in the chimney. Eventually I must have dozed off. When I woke up, light was streaming through the curtains. I opened my eyes and my blood froze – right next to my face, standing on the bedside table staring right back at me was a huge black crow. I eventually caught it in a bath towel and freed it but I’ve always thought that was my girlfriend’s grandpa checking up on me and not just a bird that got blown down the chimney.

SHUT UP AND DRINK

I was having a particularly lovely time in a Mexican restaurant in London with my wife and my children when all of a sudden the lights dimmed, the music doubled in volume and that was it – no more conversation. Apparently this is a deliberate tactic. If we can’t hear each other talking, according to a number of psychological studies, we order more alcohol and concentrate on getting steamboats. So now you know.

Awe of reef encounter

IN 1987, Forth Ports Authority tried to push through a land reclamation scheme that would see Wardie Bay in Granton filled in and the land reclaimed to sell to property developers. They hadn’t reckoned on the Wardie Bay Residents’ Association which was quick to remind the developers of the part Wardie Bay played in inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Darwin and his brother were sent to study medicine at Edinburgh University. But Charles hated the sight of blood and after he had to sit through a gruesome operation on a fully conscious child, he stopped going to medical lectures. Instead, he spent his time exploring sea-life on the Granton foreshore with a fellow student. Darwin left Edinburgh without a degree but the first glimmerings of an evolutionary connection between microscopic sea creatures and warm-blooded mammal came to him as a direct result of his discoveries in Wardie Bay. His early work is commemorated by a sign erected by Edinburgh City Council and Wardie Bay is now future-proofed against destructive land reclamation.

If protesting Granton residents can protect a few miles of Forth shoreline, you would think that the people of Queensland in Australia would be able to protect their own Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven marvels of the natural world, a marine reserve the size of Germany, stretching 1400 miles along Queensland’s coast and generating $4 billion of income for the local economy every year.

If you’ve ever snorkelled on a coral reef you’ll know that what you see under the water is so mind-blowingly beautiful that you can’t quite comprehend it. It’s as if you’re suddenly a tiny creature in a giant tropical fish tank. You swim through blizzards of angel fish, stripy clownfish wiggle up to your mask out of sheer curiosity, vivid green and pink parrotfish create a constant crunching in your ears as they nibble on the coral and every so often a pod of giant groupers the size of sacks of coal will fin past, swivelling their eyes towards you in unison and pouting at you with big, blubbery lips.

That counts for nothing with the Australian government which is very good at saying one thing and doing another. Its controversial prime minister Tony Abbott claims to be absolutely committed to arresting the decline of the world’s greatest reef:

“We’re making our position clear right around the world: it is a number one priority of the Australian government to protect the Great Barrier Reef.”

Meanwhile, as if facing in precisely the opposite direction, Greg Hunt, the minister for the environment and somebody who spent his younger days snorkelling on the reef, has just removed the last major regulatory hurdle facing the development of Australia’s largest coal mine which will operate so close to the reef (within a kilometre) as to constitute a major industrial hazard.

The coal will be shipped through the coral labyrinth that is the Great Barrier Reef, and on to India, where it will be burned in enormous coal-fired power plants. The proposed development will affect the reef at just about every stage. Millions of cubic metres of sea floor is being removed from the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area right now. It’s the largest dredging project ever undertaken in Australia, making way for massive new coal seam gas export facilities.

There are so many voices raised against this greedy and destructive project, from global activists like Greenpeace to Australian academic foundations, that local politicians and industrialists have come up with a new phrase to describe the opposition: they call it “green tape”, as if it’s a bureaucratic nuisance that has to be hacked away before Queensland can cash the multi-billion dollar cheque that’s coming its way from Adani, the giant Indian corporation which wants the coal and the coal gas.

Shame on the Australian government. Charles Darwin will be turning in his grave.