Arts and Culture

The Raven

Americanface will be right back after this important message.

By Andrew Struthers 30 Dec 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew Struthers is a filmmaker and writer in Victoria.

The road down to Cook Street Village is canopied by plane trees colonized by crows, and while I was trying to come up with another suitable animal subject for my MTV series, they would dive bomb me en route to my morning coffee.

Rob, who runs the village video store, told me about a study in England where crows at a crosswalk had learned to use the traffic lights to open walnuts. Or I should say, they had learned that car tires crush a walnut to paste, whereas shoes merely crack the shell, freeing the nutmeat.

So they learned to work with the system. When the cars stopped they would drop walnuts on the crosswalk, wait until pedestrian shoes cracked the nuts, then swoop in and pick up their reward before the traffic started again.

To do this, ravens had to ideate -- picture a possible world and make experiments until they got their reward. This is something that has been intimated in primate studies but never conclusively proven (those potato-washing Hundred Monkeys are not actually imagining a world of cleaner spuds, they're just making the most of a situation).

I was surprised. Crows are a creature that I had pegged far below anthropoids, but these critters had not only figured out how to game the traffic system, they had begun teaching the skill to their young. I had always considered Heckle and Jeckle to be the height of anthropomorphism. But now science was telling me otherwise. There's a movie in that.

Crows are smaller than bears, but all those corvine smarts made them harder to corral. For the eye-pecking scene, I made a perfect plaster model of my head with hollow eye sockets that I filled with meat, nuts and so forth. But the birds were too clever to play ball. They examined my ersatz loaf from a distance.

Finally I used a green screen, a technique I had always avoided because it seemed like a cheat. But I needed the shot, and though the results were primitive I suddenly saw a world of possibilities, which later became the spinal column of Americanface.  [Tyee]

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