Linda Jarvis: Birds of a Feather

The Red Door

“Today I heard a raven in the distance. As he flew over me he sent out his throaty, gravelly call. I called back, pretty nicely I might add, but he kept going without answering. However, as he flew by, the whispers of his wings pushing the air landed so quietly on my ears it nearly took my breath away. So magical is that moment when that sound barely breaks the silence, but it is enough to make my heart race.”

Crow Cube

Linda Jarvis is a mixed media ‘evolutionary’ artist from Washington state, USA who’s tangible style and charming execution pays perfect homage to her favorite subject matter: Crows and Ravens.

Moon Comes to Steal Raven

“They appear in my work frequently as  an indication of my passion for them. The attraction of shiny objects is large in their appetite for mischief so collecting is one of their all time favorite pass times. Here raven protects precious treasures from the rising moon, as the goods are emulated making it all the easier to steal them.”

Dreams of Flight

Each of her multi-dimensional pieces reflects a multi-dimensional message of the subconscious whim and the conscious framing of our realities. On the subject of her chosen symbol, she says,”This species of birds is one of my favorite. I am delighted with their intelligence and impressed with their genius and mastery of tasks.

For this piece I used a wonderful block of wood with diminishing red paint. I have a fetish, of sorts, for weathered remnants of painted wood I pick up on our beaches. They possess so much character and bring interesting qualities when used in various applications.”

Midnight Thief

“With all the thievery we see in the behavior of crows and ravens, keeping an eye on all our shiny objects, such as keys, would be diligent on our part, lest we lose them to these clever Corvidaes. This piece, MID-MIGHT THEIF, suggests this mischievous act.

Identity Theft

“The image of the piece above is titled IDENTITY THEFT. It has always intrigued me how blue jays can mimic various bird’s songs and/or calls in the attempt to fool the other birds and scare them from their nests. It stirred up in my mind this image of a blue jay trying to steal the identity of a crow. It always puts a smile on my face when I hear a blue jay mocking other birds and I think to myself, how clever is that! But, then again, how deceiving. That being said, crows are very clever and intelligent in their own right.”

Our favorite piece: Masquerade Gone A-Foul

To follow Linda, visit her blog here.

Alice Richard’s Dreamland

Dreamland is a series from illustrator Alice Richard inspired by the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, intended to accompany the spectacle by the same name played by EidÔloN.

As is commonplace with Poe, Crows and Ravens make an appearance throughout the series without having to be intriduced formally by the words.

[one_half]By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule-
From a wild clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE- out of TIME.

Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters- lone and dead,-
Their still waters- still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.

By the lakes that thus outspread
Their lone waters, lone and dead,-
Their sad waters, sad and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily,-
By the mountains- near the river
Murmuring lowly, murmuring ever,-
By the grey woods,- by the swamp
Where the toad and the newt encamp-
By the dismal tarns and pools
Where dwell the Ghouls,-[/one_half]
[one_half_last]By each spot the most unholy-
In each nook most melancholy-
There the traveller meets aghast
Sheeted Memories of the Past-
Shrouded forms that start and sigh
As they pass the wanderer by-
White-robed forms of friends long given,
In agony, to the Earth- and Heaven.

For the heart whose woes are legion
‘Tis a peaceful, soothing region-
For the spirit that walks in shadow
‘Tis- oh, ’tis an Eldorado!
But the traveller, travelling through it,
May not- dare not openly view it!
Never its mysteries are exposed
To the weak human eye unclosed;
So wills its King, who hath forbid
The uplifting of the fringed lid;
And thus the sad Soul that here passes
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have wandered home but newly
From this ultimate dim Thule.[/one_half_last]

You can view the entire series here or visit Alice Richard’s gallery here.

Japan’s Samurai Blue & the Three Legged Crow

We touched on Japanese mythology awhile back, skimming over the several ways in which crows and ravens have spiralled their way into Japanese art, culture, and religion throughout the centuries.

With World Cup fever sweeping the land, the “Samurai Blue” color of Japan’s national soccer team can be seen everywhere. Equally familiar is the team’s black crow emblem. Few people, however, look closely enough at this bird to note that it actually has not two, but three legs. Even fewer people realize that this emblem is directly connected to one of the most pivotal episodes in Japan’s classic mythology.

Kevin Short, a cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University and columnist for the Daily Yomiuri online, gives us some detailed insight to this tale:

‘When Amaterasu the Sun Goddess wished to establish a kingdom here on earth, she equipped her grandson with rice seeds and various imperial paraphernalia and sent him down to the island of Kyushu. A few generations later, however, the heir to the throne, Iwarehiko, decided that the land could be better governed from a more central location, and set out on a journey to the east.

After sailing through the Seto Inland Sea, the imperial expedition landed on the shores of what is now Osaka. From here they planned to push eastward over the Ikoma and Kongo mountains into the fertile Nara Basin. Before they could even gain a foothold, however, they were turned away by fierce resistance from the local clans.

Back in their boats they sailed south then eastward, rounding the Kii Peninsula and landing somewhere near modern day Nachi-Katsuura in Wakayama Prefecture. From here the route to the Nara Basin lay to the north, passing over a long stretch of steep, densely forested mountains. Once in the forest the expedition quickly lost their way. Furthermore, enthralled in a powerful spell woven by a local bear sorcerer, all the men fell into a deep stupor.

But Amaterasu the Sun Goddess was not ready to abandon her descendent and protege. From the High Plain of Heaven she had a magical seven-pronged sword sent down and presented to Ihare. With sword in hand, the sorcerer’s spell immediately dissolved. Next, Amaterasu dispatched her own familiar spirit, a giant three-legged solar crow called the Yata-garasu, which guided the expedition along the difficult mountain path all the way to Yoshino at the southern edge of the Nara Basin.

Arriving in Nara, Iwarehiko subdued all the rebellious clans and established the kingdom of Yamato. In history books he is better known as Jimmu, the first in Japan’s long line of imperial emperors that still continues today. Without the Yata-garasu there might not even have been a Japan, never mind a national soccer team!

The concept of a giant crow associated with the sun is thought to have originated in China, and may have first developed as an explanation for sunspots. Also, crows were long believed to serve the local kami deities in the Kii region. Images of a three-legged crow inside a sun circle have been found on the wall of an ancient barrow grave on the Korean Peninsula, and even today can be seen on the banner of the Kumano-Hongu shrine, the center of the Kii Peninsula’s sacred lands and pilgrimage paths.

Here in Japan, ravens  are occasionally spotted in eastern Hokkaido, but only two species, the jungle crow and carrion crow , are common and widely distributed.

These two species can be told apart by the thickness of their bill. In fact, the common Japanese names, hashi-buto-garasu for the jungle crow and hashi-boso-garasu for the carrion crow, respectively mean “thick-billed crow” and “thin-billed crow.” Also, the jungle crow is slightly larger and heavier built, and sports a high protruding forehead.

It is a bit difficult to determining which species the yata-garasu is originally derived from. Ecologically, the jungle crow prefers dense forests and coastlines; while the carrion likes meadows and open farmland. The rocky coasts and heavily forested mountains of the Kii Peninsula would have provided ideal jungle crow habitat, but the extensive rice paddies of the Nara Basin would have favored carrion crows. The shape of the bill and forehead on the traditional images are inconclusive, but the current emblem used by the national soccer team is clearly that of a jungle crow.

The jungle crow’s thick, sharply-hooked bill rivals that of an eagle. Such a powerful bill is ideal for ripping open a fish or deer carcass. Ironically, it is also perfect for slicing open a plastic garbage bag. As a result, jungle crows have proliferated in urban areas. Intelligent and adaptive, they also prey heavily on urban birds such as doves, pigeons, starlings and sparrows. I have seen these fearsome hunters swallow an unfortunate sparrow fledgling in a single gulp.

Jungle Crow Feeding on Fish

During the spring and summer nesting season, each mated pair establishes and defends their own feeding territory. Jungle crows are famous for stealing metal clothes hangers from backyards and verandahs to weave into their huge nests. They seem to have a special fetish for blue items. The parents aggressively defend their nest and brood, and in some urban parks and gardens even dive-bomb people that stray too close.

In the southern Kanto Region, jungle crows have taken over the urban and suburban residential areas, but carrion crows still thrive in the open countryside. Here they enjoy a varied natural diet, including frogs, lizards, snakes, crayfish, loaches, stream crabs, grasshoppers and beetles, as well as numerous sweet fruits and berries.”

The Yata-garasu on the national soccer team emblem is said to symbolize power and quickness. The symbol was adopted in 1931, in honor of Kakunosuke Nakamura (1878-1906), considered to be the founding father of soccer here in Japan. Nakamura (no relation, I assume, to Japan’s ace Shunsuke Nakamura) was a native of the southern Kii Peninsula.

Who You Callin a Bird Brain?

The March issue of Discover magazine featured a delightful spread on corvid intelligence, specifically highlighting the life work of Nicky Clayton.

Back in the 1990s, her colleagues at the University of California at Davis would stay at their computers at lunchtime, but she would wander outside and watch as western scrub-jays stole bits of students’ meals and secretively cached the food. During these informal field studies, Clayton, an experimental psychologist, noticed that the birds returned frequently to their stashes and changed their hiding places.

“I thought, ‘This is odd,’” she says. “I assumed birds would cache for a long time—days or months. But this was for minutes.” She theorized that the birds were moving their caches to avoid pilfering. When food was plentiful, they grabbed as much as possible and hid it, then hid it again when they could do so without being observed by potential thieves. That behavior implied that the scrub-jays might be thinking about other birds’ potential actions, a type of flexible thinking that was supposedly beyond the capabilities of a scrub-jay’s little brain.

Clayton realized that if she could capture this caching behavior in the laboratory, she might be able to decode the social cognition of birds—the way they think about one another. She might learn whether they are capable of deception, if they respond differently to individual competitors, how well they evaluate their degree of privacy, and other aspects of their mental processes.

“I had a lucky break with caching,” Clayton says. “I saw this as a niche, an area that other people weren’t busy with that might be quite interesting. Little did I know where it would lead.”

Scientists had already established the amazing memories of corvids, the family of birds that includes jays, crows, ravens, and nutcrackers. The Clark’s nutcracker can hide thousands of seeds at a time and has passed tests of recall up to 285 days later. Clayton sought to find out how deep those skills run. Many animals have impressive mental capabilities for certain narrow tasks, but such aptitudes seem to reflect hardwired or conditioned adaptations to specific challenges. That is distinctly different from a human’s ability to create and manipulate a flexible mental model of the world.

Within a few years of her lunchtime insight, Clayton was conducting the first experimental demonstrations of a non­human animal engaged in mental time travel. Her experiments demonstrated that scrub-jays plan for the future, recall incidents from the past, and mentally model the thinking of their peers. Since then her work has expanded even further. She has found other mental capacities in birds that rival or surpass those of any other nonhuman species and come uncannily close to abilities we thought were ours alone.

Looking beyond corvids, some animal behaviorists have examined how songbirds use grammar. And some have ventured farther down the evolutionary tree. One study attributed higher mental functions to fish, presenting evidence that African cichlids can reason inferentially. The accelerating stream of discoveries is challenging our understanding of what animal minds can do.

Clayton’s work also has its fierce critics—not surprising, given the century’s worth of debunked claims regarding animal intelligence. Shettleworth suggests that Clayton and Emery need to repeat the thieving experiment in a different way, with a large number of fresh birds divided into groups according to whether or not they have experience as thieves. “I think the work is provocative but not proven,” Shettleworth says, “because those birds have a history.”

Nicky Clayton’s fascination with birds does not end when she leaves her current day Cambridge University office. Over the years, the avian world has infiltrated her personal life as well, informing her off-hours interests in dance and social connection. And conversely, she has developed ideas related to her research by looking at bird behavior through the prism of her own experience.

Read the whole article here

About Nicky Clayton:

With a slight frame and sharp mind, Clayton likes being compared to a bird. As busy as the corvids she studies, she dances six days a week, even during university terms. And to push her metaphor further, you might say that she pays close attention to her plumage: Her dresses come from Milan, and she perches on stiletto heels day and night, whether relaxing at home, practicing salsa, or striding across the medieval flagstones of Cambridge at a breakneck speed.

Last year Clayton had a rare opportunity to bring her two sides together when Mark Baldwin, the artistic director of the London-based Rambert Dance Company, asked her to help create a contemporary dance commemorating the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. She agreed and then spent weeks sorting out how to express evolution in dance. “I was thinking I could just give them a straight science talk, but that’s a bit boring,” she says. “Given that I love to dance, it made sense for me to merge the two.”

In the resulting work, titled “The Comedy of Change,” Baldwin included a solo that evoked the bird of paradise video. Reviewers found the piece beautiful but, as with the behavior of the birds Clayton studies, a bit mysterious. One writer who attended a performance in Northampton that was primarily for schoolchildren appreciated it more—thanks no doubt to a talk Clayton gave in advance.

Clayton still glows about this experience. As a young girl she loved birds, dance, and clothes. Now she has all three, adding dance company science adviser to her list of titles and honors. All of that curiosity and optimism spills right back into her academic work, as she attempts to decode the minds of her scrub-jays. “I just like watching them behave,” she says, “and using that to generate ideas.”