Strange Behaviour of a Carrion Crow.
In 2008 the stately wych elm at the bottom of the garden began to show signs of disease.
By 2012 it was dead, and two years later skeletal. But I had hopes for the three suckers it
had put out. They were young, flourishing trees. It was not to be, and by 2016 they, too
had succumbed. By 2019 there was a lot of dead timber at the bottom of the garden.
Thinking that the ivy which now grew strongly up the parent tree would catch the wind and
bring it down I cut it off at the base. Unfortunately this was all that was holding the tree up,
and I returned from holiday to find that it had toppled into the adjacent wood, taking much
fencing with it. A consequence was that the three young, dead trees were now
conspicuous, their forlorn appearance drawing attention to a part of the garden which
needed some serious management.
The tree surgeon made quick work of the young trees. He took nothing away, as I wanted
to stack the logs and let them decompose quietly somewhere in the garden. But in falling
all four trees had left a great deal of debris, so I collected as much as I could to be ready
for bonfire night should the grandchildren visit. But there was so much twiggy and small
branch clutter that I decided to burn some of it on the spot.
It was a cold day in October. The wood burned well and gave out a considerable heat. I sat
in a garden chair with a cup of tea and, as you do, watched the glowing embers and
dancing flames. Then I found that I had company. A young carrion crow wandered along. A
pair breeds regularly in one of the ash trees and generally brings off one young, and we
are used to seeing a juvenile flapping about the garden. My visitor was confiding and
curious. Too curious, I thought. It walked close to the fire. Fearing for its safety I clapped
and shooed it away. It moved only a few feet, and then went back to the edge of the fire. It
stood much closer than I could have done. The heat must have been fierce; presumably its
feathers provided insulation.
It then began to peck amongst the embers at the edge of the fire. It picked up a glowing
twig and held it in the tip of its bill. The red, burning part of the twig was clearly visible
between the mandibles. It raised its head sharply a couple of times, snapping on the twig
to position it further along its bill as if it were going to eat it. When the ember reached
halfway up the bill the bird appeared to feel it for the first time, and it shook its head
sharply and threw it aside. It did this twice more before deciding that there was nothing
further to be gained and, taking no notice of me, strolled back the way it had come and
wandered off, unconcerned and apparently none the worse.
I was intrigued not only by this bizarre behaviour but also by the fact that the crow could
stand so near to the fire without, apparently, feeling the heat. Thoughts of the phoenix
naturally spring to mind, the ability of birds being able to stand the heat of a fire perhaps
having something to do with the legend. It seems too that this bird at least does not feel
pain – has no sensation – in the front half of the bill. It may have been that it was when the
red-hot ember reached the tongue that the bird felt it.
I have not researched to any extent the crow’s behaviour. Neither have I any explanation
for it. Perhaps such fire-eating by crows, or any other bird for that matter, are on record. If
anyone has any information, or would like to express an opinion, I would be happy to
Tony French. 28th March 2020