It has been quite a while since my last post. The longer it got, the better that post had to be. Finally I found a suitable subject matter. A friend of mine dragged me to the Tower of London the other Saturday. He wanted to soak up the story of Tudor England. I had a very different attraction in mind.
The Tower has been home to many fascinating characters – from Colonel Blood to the Crays – but none quite so intriguing to me as the ravens. These large Corvids are a great anecdote to 1980’s speculation of what large-brained dinosaurs might have looked like – if circumstances had permitted. The researchers came to the same conclusion that most alien speculators reach: regardless of origin, smart creatures must look like us because we are the archetypal intelligent species right? Wrong: circumstances did permit dinosaurs to diversify into extremely intelligent species; those species look nothing like humans; and chief among them is the raven.
I cannot stress strongly enough how smart these birds are. Their close cousin the Californian Crow has even solved puzzles not previously accomplished by chimpanzees. Ancient cave art shows that they have been our companions on the road to increased brain power for a very long time. It is likely that the ancestors of these birds regularly outwitted our own ancestors.
The bird that caught my eye on that Saturday was Merlina. There are 8 ravens at the tower but Merlina really stands out. She was perched on the railing, dipping her head down and making a low, booming sound akin to a spring being twanged. What on earth did it mean? I watched a while longer, taking ample opportunity to photograph this bird. A man and his son were picnicking nearby so I tried to make it as obvious as possible that I wasn’t photographing them. Then, as I watched, this dramatic scene unfolded:
I spoke to one of the guides about Merlina afterwards. Apparently she does this quite often. She also clocks what food people throw away and turfs out the contents of the bin to retrieve it – much to the cleaners’ dismay. When being put away at night she must be put away last, or she attacks her mate. Like I said: a real character!
She is by no means the only character among the Unkindness or Ravens at the Tower. One of them plays dead in order to hunt pigeons and another pecks holes in the guide hut until it leaks (Merlina may be partial accomplice to this one). If you love your neighbourhood crow, jay, and magpie you could do far worse than visit their large cousins. Tell them I sent you, they probably understand.