Nature Calls: Crows

Maybe you’re thinking that there is nothing redeeming about crows and their brethren. A group of crows—collectively called a murder (!) of crows—can pick crops clean. Their presence chases away charming songbirds. They eat carrion. In stories they are often harbingers of evil.

I hope to give you a new way to think about crows. Let’s start with one of the coolest discoveries: crows make and use tools. Enter Betty.


Betty is shown a plastic tube containing a treat. She is given a piece of wire, but she can’t quite get the food. Watch what she does. (:41)


That Betty realized she had to modify her tool to get the treat is remarkable. There are some primates who cannot figure this out. Lest you think that Betty is the Einstein of the crow world, researchers have observed this behavior in other crows time and again.

To be fair, not all species of crows show this ability. There are about 40 species of crows and ravens from a family of more than 120 corvids, which includes blue jays and magpies. “There’s a fair bit of disparity between crow species,” says Matt Brown, a PhD student in crow cognition (yes, crow cognition) at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

Thus far, scientists have found the New Caledonian crow to be the most intelligent of its brethren. Some New Caledonian crows create tools from serrated palm fronds to dig out insects from crevasses of trees. A 2014 study published in Learning and Behavior showed them using a range different tools across different sites on the island.


caledonian crow_leaves

New Caledonian crow stripping a pandanus leaf to make a tool.


Social Intelligence

The question scientists usually ask after making such a discovery is  why?  Why did some crow species develop this ability? One theory is that crows that live in complex social groups need to be able to reason and problem solve better than those crows that lead solitary lives. (BTW — Similar theories abound about the rise of human intelligence.)

Many crows are cooperative breeders, meaning they stay near the area they were born and help raise the next generation of offspring by bringing food and defending territory.


A side effect of this kind of intelligence is their ability to keep track of their relationships with with each other. Dr. John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, wondered if crows could use the same mental acuity to identify humans. He and his team trapped and banded crows (not harming them) while wearing a specific mask. When they returned to that location wearing the mask, the crows mobbed, scolded, and dive-bombed them. When not wearing the mask, the birds ignored them. And, get this: it wasn’t just the crows who had been trapped that mobbed them. Other non-banded crows started following suit. Apparently the crows who simply witnessed their cohorts being trapped responded in kind.

“Every so often Marzluff’s group retests the birds. It’s been 10 years, and not only have the crows not forgotten, the knowledge keeps spreading. When a crow sees other birds mobbing, it joins in, learning and remembering the identity of the villain.”

So the next time you shoo away a crow, remember: it’s making a mental note of the experience and may one day get its revenge.


Problem Solvers

What good is all that smarts if you can’t figure out how to solve the complexities that allow you to survive? Now for the pièce de résistance:

This New Caledonian crow, aptly named 007, solves an eight-stage puzzle he has never seen before to get to the food.



Bird Brain

How do crows manufacture and use tools, solve problems, understand words, recognize their own reflections and learn to predict human behaviors—despite having a brain the size of a walnut?

Crows and some parrots have nearly twice as many neurons in their brains than we do, when calculated by weight, according to new research published just last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


So the next time you use the term bird brain, think of it as a compliment!

Have a great weekend, everyone! 



Authorial Intrusion: Cherrypicking

What happens when a highly respected author and Wharton professor takes your words out of context to suit his point?

That didn’t happen to me, but it is a common problem in today’s cut-and-paste, Wikipedia world. Most often I think this is unintentional. Authors, researchers, and journalists are rushed to publish. They (or more likely their interns) find a cool quote that dovetails nicely with their position, but there’s a deadline and no time to consider the intention of the author’s words. Or the author is long gone so his or her words get muddled as in a game of telephone. How often has poor Mark Twain been misinterpreted?

On the other hand, sometimes it’s easier for an author or journalist to look the other way, to pretend that quote really does work to his or her advantage. If I just take these words out here and cut off the end of this quote with a few ellipses, wham-o, look how this perfectly supports my point. It’s not that the quote is wrong, it has been cherrypicked, plucked of original meaning.

This week, Adam Grant, aforementioned Wharton business school professor and author of Originals and Give and Take, did just that. His op/ed published in The New York Times, “Unless You’re Oprah, Why ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice,” shared a snippet of a quote from Brené Brown thereby changing the meaning of her words.

Look how easy it is for this to occur. Here is the sentence in its entirety from the op/ed piece linked above:

As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”

And now you, the reader, believe that Brené Brown is in agreement with Adam Grant’s point that being authentic gives people license to say whatever pops into their minds, be it hurtful or antagonistic.

But Brené Brown’s full definition of authenticity is quite long and nuanced. Understandably she took umbrage at Grant’s oversimplified, soundbite definition. She wrote a response in a LinkedIn post. (And he commented on her post!)

Grant pulled nine words out of context. Why? Because using the central part of my definition of authenticity would have bankrupted his entire argument that authenticity is the mindless spewing of whatever you’re thinking regardless of how your words affect other people.



I’m not standing in favor or against the substance of the discussion, which in itself is quite compelling. I’m pointing out how easy it is to be mislead, even by a well-meaning author. A shade here or there. Words plucked for the sake of brevity. A rushed fact-checker. It can all lead to a misrepresentation of someone’s beliefs and values.  Worse, readers rarely witness the follow-up, so they’re left with the wrong impression.

It’s interesting that the conversation of setting boundaries around authenticity has led to a conversation about what it means to set authentic boundaries in writing.

Have you ever been misquoted? Have you ever been misled by a quote? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!



Why We Read: To Have Fun

Sometimes I don’t want a deep, thought-provoking read. Sometimes I don’t want to be challenged or need to research historical background. I just want to open the cover and enjoy.

Also, the onset of warmer weather encourages me to pick lighter subject matter. Sweeping epics like All the Light We Cannot See and Station Eleven feel stout, like a hearty bowl of stew. Good for curling up under a blanket on a winter’s day when the sun sets at 4:30. In the summer, I tend to gravitate toward the literary equivalent of flip-flops.

I recently read two books that were just plain fun. Just because these novels are entertaining doesn’t mean they don’t have well-rounded characters and an engaging plot. These books won’t ask a lot of you. They probably won’t change your worldview or evoke sympathy for others’ plights. You might not think about the characters long after you close the cover, but they will put a smile on your face.

16071745Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham

If you want to get yourself geared up for The Gilmore Girls episodes later this year, this will do the trick. Someday, Someday, Maybe feels like Bridget Jones meets The Gilmore Girls. It’s a new adult story of young Franny trying to land her first real gig as an actress in 1995 NYC. (A thinly veiled autobiography of Lauren Graham’s experience?) There’s plenty of witty banter, clever lines, and twenty-something angst.

We know how things are going to turn out for Franny, and in that respect, there isn’t much surprising about the story itself. There are no twists, turns or dark dealings. It’s a straight-forward tale about a time in our lives when we’re unsure of what is supposed to happen next, when all of life feels like a secret and we don’t know quite which way is up.  I listened to this as an audio book, which was the right call. Lauren Graham reads the story, and she’s perfect of course.

13538873Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Let me say that I have an unnatural attachment to novels about bookstores and libraries. I enjoyed The Storied Life of AJ Fikry and The Little Paris Bookshop. So I had a feeling I would like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I didn’t know how much!

There is a secret society, high-tech whiz kids, special fonts (yes, I said fonts), and a budding romance. The story is always moving forward, weaving an interesting group of twenty-somethings that circulate around the main character, Clay. I think it’s safe to say that Clay has a lot of “just right” connections—far more than I had at his age—which all fall into place perfectly. He knows how to get his friends on board to help him solve the curious situation he finds himself in since he started working at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore.

Robin Sloan did a nice job of describing these disparate worlds—the high tech Google cohort and the secret society members who surround themselves in ancient texts clad in flowing black robes. If you pick up a “carbon-based copy” (as Alice in A Window Opens calls paper books), you’re in for a fun treat: the cover glows in the dark!

I’d like to recommend one more read centering around twenty-somethings, though maybe not as light-hearted as the books mentioned above. It’s a short story by yours truly, published this week at The Cortland Review. “A Seductive Shortcut” is a modern retelling of an Aaron Copland composition. It takes place at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and, yes, an Elvis tribute artist makes an appearance. I hope you enjoy it!

It was two a.m. They’d been up for nearly twenty-four hours. Married for four. Yet they stood at the edge of the lake, unable to tear themselves away and go into the hotel where one of those fancy high roller-rooms was waiting for them. Brian had booked it a few days ago when he’d had an inkling of this plan.

Can you recommend any fun reads?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Free-for-All Friday

We’ve all read headlines like this: “Late-night snacks are bad for your brain.” “A new study shows pizza is the most addictive food.” “Drinking a glass of wine is just as good as spending an hour at the gym.” These soundbites are on morning television, in magazines of every subject matter, and clogging your FB feed. They’re even scrolling across the little television screens installed in the elevators of my office building.

We know, deep down, that drinking a glass of wine is not the same as an hour at the gym. Why do media outlets report untrue or incomplete information as science? Since apparently it is unrealistic to expect them to curate scientific studies  with integrity, we have to start by opening the conversation.

Just prefacing a soundbite with “a new study shows…” should not cut it.  I encourage you to watch this clip from John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight. (It’s HBO, so it’s a bit sassy and irreverent. Watch the volume.)  Dumbing down the science to an attention-grabbing, and often incorrect, headline is doing us all a big disservice.


On a lighter note, has anyone tried this new app called Hyperlapse from Instagram? It allows you to take time lapse videos. Of course the sample clip with the dog digging in the sand made me smile.

Here is an app I can recommend: SkyView. The app uses your phone’s camera to superimpose the constellations on the night sky. It knows where you are in the world and, based on the date and time, knows what stars will be visible in your area. Point your camera toward the sky and hover over a star. The app will tell you the name of the star, the constellation or asterism, and the type of star. I’ve been loving it!

I am a closet blueberry muffin addict. This recipe from Joy the Baker is one of the best.

Who is going to watch Doctor Thorne? Yes, please. It’s a three-part miniseries from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes based on an Anthony Trollope novel. Ian McShane has a small role.

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Nature Calls: Honeybees

When my mom bought her hummingbird feeder, she envisioned spending mornings watching the charming dynamos flit about. But within hours the feeder was swarmed by bees. Hundreds of them. Not only did the hummingbirds stay away, but so did most of the other birds. She tried several bee deterrents like painting the feeder a different color and using olive oil, but the bees never got that memo so they keep coming. At her wit’s end she said, “If I could just find that hive…” Of course she wouldn’t do anything untoward, but I suggested that we look on the bright side. Honeybee populations are in sharp decline. Maybe she’s doing a community service.

I’d heard the bad news about honeybees, but I didn’t know why or what that really meant, so  I did a bit of digging.

Starting in 2006, honeybee populations have dropped about 30-50 percent. (Natural die-off is usually between 5-10 percent, which is a regenerative rate.) Why is this a big deal? The US Department of Agriculture reports that honeybee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in crops each year, including apples, citrus fruits, asparagus, and soybeans. More than one-third of the food you eat is a direct result of the hardworking bees!

And almond crops are completely dependent on them.During growing season, the state of California brings in 1.4 million honeybee colonies to do their thing for the almond trees.

The really curious thing about the decline is that there are no dead bees in the hive, just the queen and a fraction of the usual worker bees. First, let’s take a look at the structure of a hive.

There are three types of honeybees (Apis mellifera) in each hive.

The Queen:

* Her job is to lay as many eggs as possible to produce the next generation.

* She lives between 1 and 4 years.

* If she dies, the workers will produce a substance called “royal jelly” and feed it to another worker, which enables her to become a fertile queen. How they choose which worker to become queen is a mystery. (Side note: I have seen “royal jelly” hailed as a magic elixir in products from skin care to herbal supplements. Now that I know what that is…I’ll pass.)


Honeybee ourside her hive. Creative Commons License  Brad Smith


The Workers:

* Workers are all females and can number between 40,000-60,000 in a strong hive. They can travel up to five miles to collect enough pollen.

* They perform a multitude of tasks including: tending to the queen, feeding larvae, feeding drones, ripening nectar (which turns into honey), and collecting pollen.

* A worker will die if she stings. She has a barbed stinger that is left behind after stinging.



The Drones:

* Drones are all males and they have no stingers. Their sole responsibility is fertilization.

* Each hive has a few hundred drones.


Why are hives in hexagon shape?

Honeycombs are comprised of tightly packed hexagons (six-sides) where nectar is stored until it can ripen into honey. The hexagon walls are made of beeswax. It takes 8 oz of honey to make 1 oz of beeswax. The hexagon shape, more than triangles or squares, maximizes the little storage containers that can fit into the hive while requiring the least amount of beeswax.


Hive. Creative Commons License Irene Florez


So what could be happening to the worker honeybees?

Some think the die-off is a direct result of chemicals sprayed on crops. Residue from 150 different types of pesticides have been found in bee hives. It may be the aggregate of how these chemicals react with the others. A study in the journal Nature found that worker bees were 2-3 times more likely to die while away from the hive because these chemicals messed with their homing abilities to find their way back. On the bright side…

Did you know bees can dance?

You may do the Macarena, but worker honeybees do the Waggle Dance. They do it to tell the others where to find the pollen.


Have a great weekend, everyone!