Saturday 01 Oct 2016

Crows and Cards
David Simmonds

I have a rather guilty secret. I like watching nature documentaries. The reason is that for so many years, I have kept myself so woefully ignorant about matters scientific. Almost anything I watch is a revelation.

For instance, I’m in the middle of watching the multi-disk, 9-hour-plus set put out by the BBC, entitled “Planet Earth.” I’m riveted by the photography and the privations endured by the filmmakers to capture the footage, such as spending days on end in a cave filming a massive column of bat dung that also serves as a feeding ground for cockroaches.

These days, I don’t automatically turn to the TSN 5-pin bowling championship live from Ancaster or the British beer and darts Superleague channel. I’m much more likely to check the serious fare on PBS and the Discovery Channel. I’m coming away with the impression that we if are ahead of other animals in the intelligence department, it’s only by a nose. For our competitors, consider raccoons and crows, to take a couple of examples.

A recent PBS "Nature" show on raccoons invited us to conclude we have to throw in the towel: anything we can do, they can undo better. I guess we accepted that invitation when Toronto based Porter Airlines named a raccoon as its corporate spokesperson, to promote the concept of ‘Flying Refined.” If a raccoon says, to me, the service is refined; presumably, a departure lounge that has complementary garbage to eat and comfortable fences to sit on, then I will find it refined too.

Then a few days ago, Nature turned its attention to crows. Crows, apparently, have one of the biggest brains of all birds. To confirm this assertion, cameras followed one crow species in the southern Pacific that fashions its own tools. Then it gave the crow a test. There was a food reward, but it was beyond reach unless the crow could dig it out with Tool A; in turn, Tool A was beyond reach until the crow could reach it by using Tool B; and Tool B had to be untangled from a piece of string. The crow didn’t just have to be dextrous; it had to figure out the sequence of application of the tools.

The crow passed its test rather nonchalantly: it surveyed the scene for a few seconds and then calmly secured its food reward by following the get-tool-B to get-tool-A to get-the-reward plan laid out for it.

Then I began considering how well, or not so well, I played a simple board game like Rummikub. This is a variant of rummy, played with tiles instead of cards. The game requires you meld sets and runs out of your hand in logical sequence with sequences on the table. Towards the end of a game, you can usually make about three or four consecutive moves; that is, you can if you remember the move you so cleverly imagined before your turn came up. When you remember it after your turn has come and gone, you engage in bitter recriminations with yourself about your own stupidity. Oh yes, the game is a lot of fun. The box reads, for “8 to adult.” That should have been my tipoff. Design the game for adults only and I might stand a fighting chance of keeping my dignity.

This has all left me with two unsettling thoughts. Could I pass the three-stage test that the crow passed so easily? Would a crow beat me at Rummikub? I’m not sure I want to answer either one.

If that weren’t bad enough, the crow show warned us that scientists are only just figuring out that there is a ‘crow language’; that crows may have up to 200 discrete sounds they can make in order to contact and engage one another. Now, I worry about those sounds. Just what are crows saying to each other about us? Is some of it mildly derisive?

Maybe we’ll discover that crows tell one another ‘people’ jokes. A raccoon, crow and human walk into a diner. The server says, “Our specials today are meatloaf, chicken and sausages.” The raccoon says, “I’ll have the sausages.’ The crow says, “I’ll have the chicken.” The human says, “What were the specials, again?”

Yes, maybe our only consolation is that, even if they do outsmart us and will inherit the earth, crows don’t have any better sense of humour than we do. I’m pretty well at the point where I think it’s equally probable that they do; and that we’re just not smart enough to appreciate it.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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