An email with a link to a sensational web video buzzed around the Audubon magazine office last week. The clip featured crows in Japan dropping nuts into a busy intersection, waiting for them to be crushed by cars, then retrieving the bits. Some editors were skeptical and I was assigned to investigate. What is now known as “avian prey-dropping behavior” was first documented by a 19th century London banker-turned-ornithologist named Howard Saunders.
Saunders spent the latter half of his life traveling the globe jotting notes on bird behavior. In the 1850s, he visited Brazil and Chile, and in the 1880s he observed birds in Europe. He published an often-cited paper on the birds of Switzerland in The Ibis in 1891. While observing carrion crow (Corvus corone) near Linn, in northern Switzerland, he describes the behavior that bewildered our office:
“In Switzerland the prefix ‘Carrion’ cannot appropriately be applied to the Crow, for that bird virtually takes the place of our Rook, eats similar food, and is equally at home in the wooded mountains, the fields, the gardens, and about the houses, even in towns like Lausanne and Vevey. At the last-named place it stalks along the parapet by the lake, within a yard or two of the passers-by, strives with the Gulls (Larus ridibundus) for the bread thrown to them, and is almost as tame and impudent as its Indian relative, C. splendens. In autumn it displays great adroitness in dropping walnuts from a height on the flat copings of the walls of the vineyards, in order to break the shell, and the mark is rarely missed.”
If only Saunders had owned a flip phone, his web video surely would have been a sensation.