Have you ever wondered what it’s like be in the field researching a book for the Scientists in the Field series? Here’s the day-by-day, play-by-play, behind-the-scenes story of Crow Smarts (2016), the amazing story of New Caledonian crows, famous for their brainpower and their ability to make and use tools. Our adventure is already underway, but you can click here, here and here to learn about our first days in the field.
A release of the Yaté crows had been scheduled for today, but now is postponed so that some additional experimental work can be done in the aviaries. Andy kindly drops me off in Noumea so I can go scuba diving during our short hiatus.
Wind kicks up and dive trip is cancelled. I visit the Noumea aquarium. I also visit the fish market, because hey, it has fish. The rest of the day is devoted to the un-fun task transcribing notes into my computer.
Windy again. No diving. And now the weather report says “rain expected” on the new crow release date. Uh-oh. Rain will make it difficult for Andy to get photos. Also, we’re told that getting the crows out to the release site near Yaté will require wading through chest-high water. I am secretly pleased at the chance to use my wetsuit, which has traveled 6,100 miles without getting wet.
Release day! Andy picks me up and we meet Gavin and Vero Monjo (a volunteer with the project), who have five crows in cat carriers on the back seat of their truck. We follow them out to Yaté to meet Adolphe Ouetcho, a local resident, who guides us to the release site on a little islet. Remarkably, it doesn’t rain on us, and the tide is out so we can slosh across without getting soaked. Actually nicer than using a wetsuit. The release goes very well as Adolphe, Vero and Gavin take turns letting the crows go. Shortly afterward we hear a lot of squawking as every crow in the neighborhood gathers to greet the returnees.
I go off to the airport; Andy heads to the beach for a short but well-earned vacation. On my layover in Auckland I get an email from folks at Lindsay Wildlife Hospital, where I volunteer as Species Manager for American crows. We have seven crows (brought to the hospital as fledglings) that are all grown up and self-feeding and need to be released. This is definitely Crow Freedom Week.
Back in California. Jet lag recovery and laundry will have to wait because, well, crows! I catch the crows, who are living in a big aviary, and put them in individual port-a-pet boxes. Ryan Kozisek, one of our vet techs, gives each of them a pre-release exam. I drive the crows to the release site in Brentwood, California, where another volunteer lives on a farm with big trees, a water source, and a resident flock of crows. Three of the crows I release were birds I spent several weeks hand-feeding, but they clearly don’t like me anymore. They squawk and try to peck my hand. This is ideal, because it means they are ready to return to the wild. One by one, each crow takes flight. A wonderful end to a spectacular crow season!